Realistic Time Travel

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

shunn gave this to me, saying it was one of the best SF novels of last year, and I have to wholeheartedly agree. At one level it’s a fascinating story that shows a (relatively) realistic possibility for traveling into the future.

The first chapter is dated 4×10^9 AD, which disappointed me because I’m generally not fond of far-future novels, but it’s no such thing. Earth has been encapsulated in some kind of force field, known for insufficiently explained reasons as “The Spin,” that blocks the moon and stars, though it allows sunlight through. It turns out that outside the Spin, time is passing at an alarmingly fast rate, something like a half-a-million years to one. Why the Spin was put in place, and by whom, is the subject of the story — it was essentially put in place to slow time down enough to allow alien intelligences to rescue us from destroying the planet and ourselves. They do so by placing a gateway on Earth to a fresh, unsullied world.

But the real story is the relationship between the three main characters: Jason Lawton, the brilliant son of a rich aerospace magnate who battles his father and discovers the reasons behind the Spin; Tyler Dupree, the son of Jason’s housekeeper, a boy who’s constantly reminded of his ordinariness and grows up to be a physician; and Diane, Jason’s sister, who is thrown permanently off-balance by the Spin, descending into religious cult beliefs. Diane and Tyler are in love with each other — they are together on the lawn of the “big house” when the stars go out — but the social gulf between them, and the Spin, keep them apart for a large part of their lives. This complicated three-way relationship is rendered in detail, with no cheap shots or easy ways out.

What’s also impressive is his quite realistic description of the world reaction to the Spin, of the inter-governmental jockeying, the religious fanatacism, the change in the entire world’s attitude when it’s discovered that the sun will be turning into a red giant within most people’s lifetimes, the new diseases that show up, the uninterest by the poorer nations since so little has changed for them.

The ultimate answer is a little far-fetched, but by the time it starts to develop you’re more interested in the people. Earth starts terraforming Mars, since they can now work on a million-year time frame, and in a few years, a “Martian” comes back to Earth, bringing complex biotech that prolongs life (and saves Jason from a new form of MS). Jason’s father’s company uses this technology to build nanomachines that they shoot into space where they start duplicating themselves and forming an enormous neural net which then encounters others of its kind, which, it turns out, created the Spin.

The Spin starts to disintegrate, causing worldwide panic, as the gateway, a miles-high archway in the Pacific, is put in place. Diane and Tyler finally hook up, and he gives her the life-prolonging drug, turning her into a “fourth,” a human with a longer-range view than usual, and they flee the increasing anarchy and the efforts of Jason’s father to get the technology back under control, eventually going through the arch as Tyler too takes the drug.

Summarizing the story is not the point; I spent most of the book feeling Tyler’s inadequacy keenly. There’s an early scene in which he and Jason switch bicycles, and Jason loses control of Tyler’s old heap on a hill and has a bad accident. Jason’s father basically tells Tyler that the most important thing he can do is to make sure that Jason is not hurt or otherwise prevented from fulfilling his enormous potential. Diane, too, is so real, scared and rejected as insignificant by her father, in love with Tyler but unable to overcome her own fears, desperate for answers. In some ways, it’s a sympathetic (if condescending) portrayal of religious fundamentalism — in other words, it treats as the pathology that it is, but at least makes us feel why you might succumb to it.

Highly recommended. Thanks Bill!

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