Spin by Robert Charles Wilson


AuthorRobert Charles Wilson

Pages: 464 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: March 10th, 2005
ISBN-10: 076534825X
ISBN-13: 978-0765348258

Spin is not merely a SF thriller. It’s also a coming-of-age tale, a love story, a literary triumph, and an ecological and apocalyptic warning.

Big words from Bookmarks Magazine were enough to get me excited. A Hugo for best novel sets expectations. When it beats out what is possibly my favourite novel I’ve read this year (John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War) it raises the bar even higher. Therefore, it was with rather strong trepidation and eagerness that I picked up Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, a novel with a bucket load of hype. The question, however, is whether it could possibly live up to that sort of acclaim.

The answer? I still don’t really know.

Much of the buzz surrounding Wilson’s novel came from his ambitious attempt at mixing hard SF (Earth is entrapped within a time altering membrane of mysterious origins) and the classic literary tale of three friends growing into adulthood. Spin essentially consists of two stories wrapped in one. The first is a touching coming-of-age tale as Tyler Dupree grows to adulthood with best friends Diane and Jason Lawton. Life takes each of the three in drastically different, but often intertwined, directions. Tyler, our narrator, acts as the link between the Science Fiction tale (Jason Lawton) and the literary tale (Diane Lawton). Sporadically interspersed among this tale of friendship is a SF-tinged thriller set years in the future, following Tyler and Diane as they flee from unknown pursuers – all-the-while Tyler is afflicted with an illness forced upon him by an illicit drug of martian origins. The delicate dance between these two disparate storylines does a good job of leaving the reader just enough foreshadowing to keep them wondering exactly how the quiet coming-of-age story of three youths could possibly lead to such a violent pursuit far in the future.

Wilson’s prose is short and snappy, which helps the story move along briskly, but I often found it feeling a little dry, in need of an injection of vivaciousness and wit. He uses a lot of natural breaks in his chapters, and understands the importance of utilizing dialogue to move quickly through scenes. Even near the end of the novel, when he turns to some complicated infodumping to explain ‘The Spin’, its origins and purpose, the reader never feels overwhelmed or bogged down by the science of it all, as can often happen in Science Fiction novels. In many ways, Spin is science fiction for yuppies, for those that think Science Fiction can never be anything but a physics textbook with a plot.

All sounds pretty good, right? So where’s the problem?

Mostly it falls on those three integral characters: Tyler, Jason and Diane… at least at first.

For the first half of the novel (the part that’s mostly filled with the coming-of-age story), I found myself being driven, ironically, less because of the characters and more because of the potential of the ‘Big Idea’ driving the plot. Despite the first person perspective (which usually allows for vivid, well drawn characters) the narrator/protagonist, Tyler Dupree, is, well… kinda boring. And unfortunately Tyler’s supporting characters, Jason and Diane, aren’t a whole lot better. Their relationships never feel quite right, almost forced; they lack charisma and are, frankly, a bit unlikeable. Many times I found myself more interested in the walk-on characters (those secondary characters that stick around for a couple of chapters and then disappear again for whatever reason), more than I cared about the main characters.

This would be a big problem if the idea of ‘The Spin’ weren’t so compelling – for every second that passes on the Spin enshrouded Earth, roughly 12 years pass outside, the universe aging by billions of years as Earth stays more-or-less static; even Earth’s best and brightest have little idea where ‘The Spin’ came from or why it was created. The aforementioned ‘thriller’ chapters, seeming to take place after ‘The Spin’ has fallen, offer glimpses of what’s to come, helping to ease the concerns about the characters, and kept me going on if only just to solve the mysteries presented in the novel.

A funny thing happens, though. As the novel moves on the coming-of-age bits fall away and the Science Fiction bits expand, contrary to what one might think, this is when the characters really start to fall into place and I finally started to connect to them in a meaningful way . Wilson takes his time with it, but it’s clear by the end that the trio driving the novel aren’t necessarily meant to be likeable, are instead meant to be as flawed as any of us – full of their own inner demons, their own vices, their own struggles. They aren’t necessarily the most likeable or even memorable cast, but by the end of the novel, Wilson makes sure that you know exactly why they each of them are so bloody obtuse in their own special ways.

I enjoyed my time with it and (especially once Wun Ngo Wen, one of the other central characters, is introduce) I had trouble putting it down. Despite all this, I don’t feel compelled to pick up the sequel, Axis, and can’t help but wonder if it was just for the novel to beat out Old Man’s War, which I found to be a much more compelling and readable novel. Spin succeeds on what Wilson set out to do, telling both a good Science Fiction take and a good coming-of-age tale. The problem, however, is that neither ever manages to grasp onto that greatness that seems just out of reach.

  • Rob B August 11, 2008 at 6:07 am


    I liked the book very much when I read it last year, and thought it was the best SF book I read last year. Your analysis/review was very good, you gave me something new to consider (Tyler as a acts as the link between the Science Fiction tale and the literary tale”) that I hadn’t caught before.

    What makes your review (even though you had problems with the book) good is that you are honest about how you felt about the book.

  • aidan August 12, 2008 at 10:50 am


    I don’t generally read many reviews of novels before I’ve read them. Rather, I appreciate them after the fact, hoping that through them I can gain fresh insight into the work and let my relationship with the novel continue on after I’ve turned the last page. I know that sounds pretentious as hell, but well… whatever.

    I’m glad I was able stimulate something like that for you. Spin, though it had some problems, was certainly a novel worth thinking about.

    Did you ever read Axis?

  • Rob B August 12, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    I haven’t read Axis yet, but I’ll be getting it soon. I’ve got waaay too many unread books sitting in piles at home, but one little book won’t hurt, will it?


  • KS Augustin August 19, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Tbh, I’m still in the middle of “Spin”, but one thing that struck me so far is how class-conscious the novel is. I’m finding that interesting, considering it’s coming out of a so-called classless society. (Or, at least, a society that claims to be classless.) Has anyone noticed the same thing, or are my over-sensitive, post-colonialist antennae quivering unnecessarily?

  • aidan August 20, 2008 at 9:15 am

    That’s an interesting observation that I never really noticed while reading the novel. One thing to consider is that while the novel takes place in the United States, Wilson actually grew up and lived in Canada for most of his life.

    It could be some sort of outsiders’ view of where the US might be headed in the future, especially under such drastic circumstances as those found in Spin.

    I’ll be thinking about this one for a couple of days, that’s for sure!

  • KS Augustin August 20, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Ah, I didn’t know that about Wilson (the Canadian angle). DH, who’s Polish, has also commented on the same thing. We came up with a list of American novels that, to us, had definite class undertones but — wouldn’t you know it? — I can’t remember any of them now (typical!), except for “The Great Gatsby”.

    But it’s interesting that if I come across a device of a child growing up with other children who are much better off than s/he with a parent faintly disapproving of the association, I tend to assume off the bat that it’s an American novel.