Robert Charles Wilson
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
In 1989, an archeaological team unearths a strange, radioactive artifact. It is transferred to a lab outside of Two Rivers, Michigan, where military scientists headed by Alan Stern attempt to unlock its secrets. One night, witnesses in the nearby town see a bright light emanate from the military facility. Everyone in the town then passes out. The next morning, the people of Two Rivers find that the entire town and the military base have been transplanted in an alternate reality where Christian Gnosticism is the dominant reality, the U.S. is at war with the Spaniards in what we know as Mexico, and the theocratic government (and the not-so-friendly Proctors) are more than a little curious about Two Rivers. Even stranger, the military lab is now surrounded by a strange, radioactive blue light that, when entered, leads to hallucinations of strange "spirits". The story focuses on Howard Poole, the nephew (and protege) of Alan Stern and Dexter Graham, a teacher at the Two Rivers high school. Together, with help from a few secondary characters, they set out to find out what has happened and how, if its possible at all, to return to their own reality. SPOILER: The Proctors and military of the new reality plumb the records of the Two Rivers libraries and are able to find enough information to advance their own pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The testing site is to be Two Rivers as the town is viewed as utterly alien and full of heresy. When Dexter and a few others get wind of the plan, it becomes a race against the clock. In the end, Howard Poole is able to succeed where his uncle failed; however, Two Rivers is not transported back to our reality, but rather another more tolerant reality that mirrors Howard Poole's sacrifice of selfless love.
Geographical Setting: fictional town of Two Rivers in northern Michigan
Time Period: Contemporary (1994)
This book is everything that's good about philosophical science fiction. Winner of the 1994 Philip K. Dick Award, Wilson's book is a character-driven tale that grapples with big ideas like the role of religion in society, the nature of sacrifice, and the ways in which individuals cope with fascist takeovers (some assimilate; some resist). The characterization is the strong point of the book. Dexter Graham is the obvious focus. He's conflicted and struggling with his own "demons"--namely longterm apathy following the death of his son and wife. But the trouble faced by TWo Rivers forces him to look beyond his own problems to something larger. In a sense, he's the classic damaged hero. Secondary characters are well-developed, and the reader spends equal time following subplots that dovetail nicely as the book draws to its conclusion. The tone is philosophical and tinged with the anxiety that the characters feel as they struggle to understand what has happened. The book spend a lot of time on the theme of religion, but while Wilson does spend some time laying out the basics of Gnostic Christianity, the details are not overwhelming and fail to hamper the pace of the novel. This one grabs you from page one, but then slows as the citizens of Two Rivers struggle to learn what has happened. Once they learn of the bomb test, however, the pace picks up. Wilson's writing style is ideal for this tale. He creates believable characters. The third-person narration allows us to look into their thoughts, but he handles dialogue skillfully. This isn't Joyce, but it is literary, and there's a lot to chew on here.
Read-alikes: A natural next read would be more from Robert Charles Wilson. Try either The Chronoliths (2001), about humanity struggling to understand monoliths that appear marking a military victory 20 years in the future of a man named Kuin, or Spin (2005), the Hugo Award-winning tale about a huge membrane that one day appears around the Earth. This novel is told first person by a man who goes on an expedition to Mars only to learn that time is passing much faster outside of the "spin". If you're intrigued by alternate universes colliding and character-driven philosophical science fiction, then try Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer, wherein a scientist from a world in which the Neadrathals evolved and homo sapiens did not is transported to our reality via a rift in fabric of the universe. Tim Powers, another PKD Award winner, is often compared to Robert Charles Wilson--especially with regard to writing style and characterization. In The Anubis Gates, another time travel mystery that, given the emphasis on magic, is probably better categorized as a fantasy. In it Brendan Doyle finds himself in the center of a cosmic battle to reawaken the Egyptian gods and destroy the British Empire. In Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo, the Argonos comes across a seemingly deserted "generational ship", a huge spacecraft capable of transferring thousands of people across space to a new planet. As the crew of the Argonos delves deeper into the mystery of this ship, they learn that something truly terrible happened to those on board, but who did it and where are the perpetrators now? Like Mysterium, Ship of Fools involves a generous philosophical dose of what's-going-on?, a broad range of well-developed secondary characters, and a restrained tone that adds to the tension that drives the book forward. Audrey Niffenneggar's The Time Traveler's Wife also explores alternate timelines and is literary and intensely character-driven book. The book throws in an element of romance (a minor element in Wilson's book) as the two main characters met each other at odd ages due to the ability of the one to travel through time. The pacing and tone of Mysterium also reminded me a lot of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (the writing style is very similar, too). In Solaris, a team of scientists struggle to understand a strange energy surrounding a planet that is not only sentient but capable of reading the scientist thoughts and emotions.
Red Flags: "off-screen" violence including the deaths of teenagers by hanging, questioning of the validity of Biblical "truths" (i.e. while Christian religious themes abound, they're anything but evangelical), "off-screen" adultery.
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
Twelve year old Tyler Dupree lives in small house across from the Big House, where his mother works as a housekeeper. Tyler is friends with genius twins Diane and Jason Lawton, who live in the Big House. One night, as the three children lie outside on the lawn, the stars and moon vanish from the sky. At first people arenít worried because the next morning the sun appears to rise as usual but as the days progress, the true nature of the problem emerges. The Earth is surrounded by a barrier of some kind that is artificially created and maintained. This phenomenon becomes known as the Spin as it is revealed that time is going by at a faster rate outside of the barrier than on the Earth and eons are passing by outside the Spin as humanity watches. Because of time is accelerated, the Earth only has forty years until the Sun will envelop the Earth and everything on Earth will die. The unknown entities that created the barrier are called Hypotheticals due to their mysterious nature. The events of the Spin affect each of the three children differently. Diane retreats into blind faith and joins a cult. Jason works for his fatherís company and devotes his life to saving the world and understanding the nature of the Spin and Tyler becomes a doctor and accepts a position as the companyís doctor and Jasonís personal physician. Jason comes up with an idea that uses the passage outside of the Spin to humanís advantage. He sends out missiles to terraform Mars to make it habitable and then sends human colonists to Mars to at least preserve humanity. Jason also hopes that these ĎMartiansí will be able to help save Earth. The plan is successful and within a few years on Earth (billions of years outside of the Spin) Mars is far-more technologically advanced than Earth. But then Mars gets its own Spin barrier but not before one Martian is able to fly out in a mission to Earth. SPOILER: Wen, the Martian, reveals a plan to release replicators (intelligent nanotechnology) which will build a network throughout the universe. Using Martian technology that Wen has brought with him, Tyler is able to cure Jason of a debilitating disease and Jason becomes a Fourth, a special type of adult who lives longer and becomes Ďmoreí than they were before. Wen is killed and Jason decides to become a receptor for replicator network. Jason comes into contact with the Hypotheticals and reveals to Tyler that the Hypotheticals are themselves a super-replicator network. Jason dies from his exposure to the Hypotheticals. Before he dies he reveals that the Hypotheticals placed the Spin barrier to preserve Earth at its technological prime and plan to connect Earth to other planets that they have placed a barrier on so that the different worlds can meet and intermingle and most importantly survive. The Spin disappears and an Archway appears in the ocean which leads to the New World. Tyler saves Dianeís life and she also becomes a Fourth. After a number of years, Diane and Tyler find their way back to each other. Many years later after living in hiding in Canada, Diane and Tyler, who has become a Fourth too, escape to the New World via the Arch after fleeing the government who is hunting Fourths and anyone with knowledge of secret Martian technology. The novel ends with their arrival to the New World.
Geographical Setting: Earth
Time Period: 4 x 10^9 A.D and the near past
Series: Spin (Book 1)
Robert Charles Wilson deftly blends big science fiction ideas such as nanotechnology with complex characterization in Spin. Though Spin is a science fiction novel it is also very much a character driven novel that focuses on three humanís response to a cataclysmic event. All three main characters, Tyler, Diane and Jason are well-drawn and dramatic. Wilson vividly describes people such as Wen, the Martian, as well as places such as Padang and the Grand Canyon. The tone of the novel alternates between bleak and upbeat. Wilson describes the fear and anxiety of the world as it approaches its own end of days. The darker tone reflects the philosophical and political look at what could happen to the human race if presented with the end of the world. The self-destructive action of people in response to the Spin is counteracted by those who find hope in trying to understand the Spin and the novel ultimately ends on a hopeful note. The novel is medium-paced overall as every other chapter alternates between the near past and present. The current day events are fast-paced and exciting while the past events illuminate the characterís relationships and actions and move the plot along. Wilson is focused on revealing information slowly throughout the entire book and so his writing style is complex and dramatic. The style however is never too formal and does not rely on the science to fill holes in the plot. Complex characterization will attract readers of all genres while science fiction fans will enjoy the coverage of major science fiction issues with interesting and thought-provoking scientific details.
Read-alikes: Fans of Spin will surely enjoy the sequel, Axis which is the latest book from Robert Charles Wilson and is the second book in the Spin series. Axis takes place in the New World created by the Hypotheticals and connected to Earth by the Arch. Readers who enjoyed the well-written prose of Wilson, as well as his combination of speculative science fiction and pure science fiction will enjoy reading this sequel to discover new characters and learn more about the nature of the Hypotheticals. Readers, who enjoyed the blend of richly drawn characters, scientific details, and moving love story in Spin, will enjoy Old Man's War by John Scalzi. On the day that John Perry turned 75 he did two things: visited his wifeís grave and joined the Colonial Defense Force. In return for promising to never return to Earth, giving up their possessions, serving in the military for a couple of years, recruits are promised a treatment that will reverse aging and a new life on another planet. Old Man War features exciting speculative details and issues with interesting characters and an exciting plot. Fans of the compelling characters, human-alien interactions, and grim tone in Spin might also enjoy Camouflage by Joe Haldeman. Russell Sutton, a marine biologist, is approached by the government after an ancient artifact is discovered deep within the ocean. But government and Russell are not the only ones interested; two immortal shape-shifters are also being drawn to the artifact. For a story about two androids falling in love try Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer. Readers who liked the moving love story and nuanced characters as well as the philosophical speculation of Spin will enjoy this book about Jake, who transplants his mind into an android body to save himself from a certain death. Jake falls in love with another android but things get complicated when his old body demands its mind back and takes hostages. Fans of the philosophical issues of the end of the world, cutting edge science, and complex family relationships in Spin may also enjoy Accelerando by Charles Stross. This book is about the Macx family who is dealing with the extinction of humankind d to technological advances and now must tackle an adversary who seeks to kill off all organic life-forms. If you enjoy deeply probing philosophical science fiction that incorporates an alternate universe may enjoy Octavia Butlerís Dawn (1987), a story where aliens make contact with humans on a self-destructing Earth. Readers particularly interested in well-developed characters with an alternate universe setting might also try Red Mars (1992), by Kim Stanley Robinson. In this book, humans terraform Mars to make it habitable for colonization. This is the first installment in the Mars series which continues with Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1995). Ursula LeGuin is another author who pairs rich character development and a deeply layered writing style. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is the story of a planet called Winter whose residents are asked to join a coalition of planets.
Red Flags: Sex, religion portrayed in a negative light, and language