"When people come to understand how big the universe is and how short human life is, their hearts cry out. Sometimes it's a shout of joy: I think that's what it was for Jason; I think that's what I didn't understand about him. He had the gift of awe. But for most of us it's a cry of terror. The terror of extinction, the terror of meaninglessness. Our hearts cry out. Maybe to God, or maybe just to break the silence."
In the first of what (I hope) shall be four posts* on the books shortlisted for the year's Hugo award for best novel, it's unrequited love, the fleeting nature of human existence, and where the bloody hell have the stars gone, in Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson's Spin.
[* The fifth nominee, George RR Martin's A Feast for Crows, I read about eight months ago, and being a whopping great hardback was too bulky to travel here to Madrid with me for a recap read. If I have time, will do my best to dredge up some thoughts...]
In brief: one night in the near future, the stars abruptly go missing from the sky. Frantic investigation by the world's top scientists reveals that a great shield (or membrane, or something else) has appeared - or been placed - between the Earth and the rest of the universe. Filtered sunlight can get in, certain probes can get out, but there is no shifting it, nor any explanation of how, why... or who. Returning probes demonstrate one ineluctable fact: that time inside the membrane is running much more slowly than time outside (roughly, one Earth second equates to 3.17 years elsewhere in the solar system). From the perspective of those on the planet's surface, then, Earth is being accelerated through the lifetime of the universe - most pertinently, of its Sun. Within a generation of humanity's subjective time, it is predicted, the real sun beyond the membrane will die - and it will burn up the Earth with it.
Our window upon these events is one Tyler Dupree, who, aged 12, happened looking at the sky that night, with his best friend Jason Lawton and Jason's twin sister Diane. A parental party at the Big House (as Jason and Diane's home is known) leaves the kids to sneak outside with a pair of binoculars to indulge Jason's fascination with stargazing. Diane, not impressed by the constellations (largely, of course, because her brother is), decides to use the binoculars to spy out something else entirely:
"Carol and E.D.'s bedroom, empty; the spare bedroom..."
But Diane said nothing. She sat very still with the binoculars against her eyes.
"Diane?" I said.
She was silent for a few seconds more. Then she shuddered, turned, and tossed - threw - the binoculars back at Jason, who protested but didn't seem to grasp that Diane had seen something disturbing. I was about to ask her if she was all right--
When the stars disappeared.
The framing of this pivotal plot moment - overwhelmed by an adolescent girl's parental crisis and her brother's concern for his precious binoculars - is typical of the way Wilson presents his story, tending to focus on the personal impact and the emotional lives of the characters rather than the scenario for its own sake. It continues thus as the years go by, as the investigations, solutions (including an attempt to colonise Mars), and desperation pile up: humanity's search for survival is pursued through the changes wrought upon the lives of these three, how it alters - or reinforces - their views of the world. Events on the cosmic scale are almost always counterbalanced by human-scale matters - even if the shadow of the Spin (as it becomes known) can never be escaped.
Jason, already an astronomy enthusiast and a genius to boot (much hothoused by his father, the ever-impersonally-named E.D.), subsumes his life to learning as much as possible about the Spin: in particular, why. Diane, never at home with Jason's outlook on the universe because of the insignificance it seems to cast upon human life (the quotation at the top of this post comes from her, much later), searches for meaning in other places, and finds it - perhaps - in a millenarian Christian cult. Tyler, for his part, becomes a doctor, but finds he can never move past his childhood mindset: his protectiveness of Jason, his unspoken feelings for Diane.
Here, again, the microcosm and macrocosm are paralleled; Tyler's lack of direction and his unending wait for his life to begin mirrors the fate of his whole generation. For reactions to the Spin are not expressed in immediate panic, on the whole - the situation is a difficult one for many people to grasp, and the timetable is less compressed than in many apocalyptic scenarios. As Tyler puts it at one point:
People younger than me have asked me: why didn't you panic? [...] Why did your generation acquiesce, why did you all slide into the Spin without even a murmur of protest?
[...] Sometimes I cite the parable of the frog. Drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, he'll jump out. Drop a frog into a pot of pleasantly warm water, stoke the fire slowly, and the frog will be dead before he knows there's a problem.
Even for those who do realise the significance of the Spin, reactions are not so clear-cut. What do you turn to when control over your life has been so emphatically taken away? How do you react to such an abrupt alteration of your world - to something that so forcibly brings a vertiginous new perspective on the universe and humanity's tiny place in it? Jason embraces it, but in doing so casts aside some of what makes him human; Diane fears it, and tries to make something positive of it, in her terms, so she can still live an emotional life. Tyler, meanwhile, just waits.
Far more damaging, in some senses, is not the prospect of extinction but the awareness of it: the knowledge of being without a future - together with the faint, continual hope that the whole things might somehow yet be averted. Those of Tyler's generation exist suspended, uncertain whether to look forward or live in the eternal present, whether living out the time that remains has been rendered pointless - or all there is.
Related to this is Tyler's role as a doctor - his daily encounters with individual mortality, set against the future mortality of the species. As a doctor he knows that - even without the Spin - there is no such thing as saving a life, only prolonging it against the inevitable. Ultimately, everyone will die - yet, almost every time, the will to survive battles against this:
No, we had never conquered death, only engineered reprieves - enacted our conviction that more life, even a little more life, might yet yield the pleasure or wisdom we wanted or had missed in it. No one goes home from a triple bypass or a longevity treatment expecting to live forever. Even Lazarus left the grave knowing he'd die a second time.
But he came forth. He came forth gratefully.
Wilson thus raises the question: how does a predetermined time limit affect an individual, a species? Does knowing when matter? As one character observes, "Well, welcome to the human condition. They're gonna die, you're gonna die, I'm gonna die - and when was that ever not the case?" This is reinforced when Jason becomes terribly ill with a variant of MS, one that looks set to kill him before the Spin does everyone else - before his life's work can be completed. Of course, his life's work may be objectively irrelevant if the Spin does finish off humanity - who will be left to benefit from the knowledge? - but this book is all about subjectivity, whether it is humanity looking up from the slow, encapsulated Earth, or individuals fleeing their own fates. Jason's will to live just long enough stems from his own priorities, his own sense of a life not yet fulfilled.
Another interesting aspect of the book is the way it is structured. The linear narrative, which begins with young Tyler et al stargazing at the Big House, is punctuated be a series of episodes set some way into the future, centring around an adult Tyler's self-administration of an initially unspecified drug, and his feverish episodes under its influence. The hints dropped in this strand prove effective suspense builders as the novel goes on: how did we get here? Why is Tyler being pursued, and by whom? What is the purpose of the drug?
All this dovetails in the theme of growing up - of letting go of the past, of damaging ways of living life - and, in growing up, of encountering and embracing new perspectives. Most obviously, this is seen in our narrator, who wallows in memories at the expense of living in the present. It is in the Lawton family, who seem pathologically incapable of moving beyond past resentments (Diane's life may in some ways be read as one long flight from her father's disregard). It is there in the theories that begin to emerge about the Spin, about the insustainability of humanity's wasteful, wilfully destructive way of living on Earth, consuming resources with no regard to the future. It is there, too, in what emerges from the Mars colonisation project, and new cultural ideas about a Fourth Age - a second adulthood.
Wilson spins out (ahem) the possibilities of his premise in mostly satisfying, human- rather than tech-centred ways, thanks to the grounded - even short-sighted - narration that he frames it with. For this reader, at least, the pathos of certain plotlines never quite reached their potential (I can't say more without giving things away), and the insular narration, while largely effective, deprived us of more than glimpses of how the rest of the world deals with the news. I also found the time-shifted colonisation of Mars frustrating in its wasted opportunities (human society changes implausibly little in 100,000 years - surely ripe for potential with regards to the 'grow up' side of things). Yet overall Spin proves a very complete package, doing what SF does best: putting humanity in an extreme setting, to examine it and its relationship with the universe. A good start to my Hugo reading!