Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, starts out as a seemingly average bit of modern science fiction. There is some “event” that is inexplicable to humans and, over the course of the novel, the event, its origins, and its consequences bear out in ways that can be either interesting or uninteresting to the average reader. That is what separates good science fiction from bad and also where Spin excels! The reasons for and consequences of the event in Spin are absolutely fantastic and make the book more than worth reading by any fan of science fiction.
So, to begin with, let’s describe the “event” in the novel. At some point in the near future, the entire Earth is suddenly covered by a membrane that selectively lets things through. For instance, electromagnetic radiation is not let through in either direction but satellites, rockets, and the like are (note: the membrane generates a sort of artificial sunlight in order to allow life to continue on the planet). Even more interestingly, the membrane effectively slows down the passage of time on the earth such that, for every decade that passes on the earth, a billion years pass by in the rest of the galaxy. Effectively, this means that humans have 50 years left before the sun’s expansion makes Earth unlivable (thanks to a variety of reasons, including deadly radiation and unbearable temperatures). That is the “event”. While quite intriguing, it is not the most exciting premise for a science fiction book that I have read.
What happens thereafter, in humanity’s attempts to save itself from extinction in 50 years is what makes this book spectacular. First, in hopes of providing itself the time necessary to develop technology to defeat the looming extinction of the species, humans decide to launch a colony on Mars. As Mars does not have a membrane around it, time there flows regularly and people on Mars have the full length of time till the death of the sun to come up with a way to save their brethren on Earth (or at least allow the human species to continue). This much we get from the back sleeve of the book. And here is where the fun starts. Beyond lie spoilers…
Within a hundred thousand years (real time), Mars is also enveloped by a similar membrane. At this point, it is believed that the membranes are the hostile actions of an intelligent alien species. But to what end is unknown. As the years (and decades) pass, humans go through various stages of coming to terms with their seemingly inevitable destruction: hedonism, religious fervor, hysteria, suicide, looting, etc. It seems that we are doomed.
However, the Martian colony, before being enveloped by the membrane, sent a representative back to Earth with tremendous amounts of technology not yet developed on Earth. Among these technological treasures were replicators, also known as von Neumann machines. [On a side note, I feel like it is rare that von Neumann machines are meaningfully brought into science fiction novels and really appreciate the inclusion of the concept into this novel by Wilson.] After much debate, these replicators are launched into outer space in the hopes of, at the very least, understanding the origins of the alien intelligence out to destroy us.
What these replicators report back (and how they fare) is far too interesting and exciting for me to simply give away here. It would be a disservice to any potential reader who happens to come across this review. So, I close out this review simply by saying that Wilson successfully manages to weave together human, geological, and galactic time spans in this novel, while incorporating a number of speculative concepts that are thrilling for any science-fiction fan. Enjoy!
PS, There is some amount of storyline about the characters in the book, which I intentionally omitted. The human interest plot was well-written but I just don’t consider that to be the real core of a science-fiction book.
PPS, If you don’t know what von Neumann machines are, you really should click on the Wikipedia link I inserted in the text. And here. It’s a really interesting concept that doesn’t get enough air time, in my opinion."