It's all about the plot, at least when it comes to hard science fiction, and Spin is no exception. Robert Charles Wilson does have a lot of character development in this novel, but the "what if" factor is the central core, the main draw.
What if you were watching the stars twinkle above you, then all of the sudden they disappeared? What if Earth was encapsulated in a bubble, one that not only blocked out the stars, but created a temporal anomaly, so time moved faster outside of it? And why? These are the questions addressed in Spin, and the novel spans over thirty years delving into these questions, with science and technology at the core of the exploration. The perfect set-up for a science fiction novel, and an interesting idea, in my opinion. We assume that the stars will always be in the night sky, but that might not always be the case, so it's a plot that can easily pull any reader in, since it's something that almost every one of us can relate to. Not only that, the novel incorporates the fear of an apocalypse, alien lifeforms, and science and technology based in fact, prominent and usually expected themes for hard science fiction.
We see the story of the Spin from Tyler Dupree's eyes, and he is inexorably connected to his two childhood friends, Jason and Diane. These characters are developed throughout the novel, the encapsulating of the Earth occurring when they are adolescents. While I felt they were rounded characters, I still had a hard time connecting to them. I think this is because the characters are merely there to reveal the plot, to show the scientific and religious responses to the Spin membrane. It's too convenient that our protagonist happens to be friends with both Jason and Diane, since it's through them that he learns anything. Tyler is pulled around by his friends for most of the novel, doing what they wish, and not having much of a desire of his own in the world.
Jason is a genius--this, and the political connections his father has, puts him square in the middle of the project to study the Spin membrane. Anything Tyler learns about the science or the Hypotheticals (the name given to whomever encapsulated the Earth) comes from Jason. At times, it feels over the top that Jason would even be sharing this information with Tyler. They don't see each other for years, Tyler graduates from med school, and out of the blue Jason wants to get everyone together for a mini-reunion of sorts. When Tyler arrives, though, Jason reveals his excitement and fears about what they've discovered, sharing classified information. "'I'm sorry. I know this sounds cryptic. I'm not supposed to be talking about these things at all. With anyone.' 'You're making an exception in my case?' 'I always make an exception in your case.' He smiled. 'We'll discuss it over dinner, okay?'" (64). The learning of information, especially in the first part of the novel, seems contrived, and it's as though Tyler is merely the tape recorder that Jason reports to. This is a key element on how the characters are used to reveal the plot--even though depth of character exists, they feel like pawns to extrapolate what's going on with the world.
Of course there's not just a scientific side to things. The human condition and reaction is also a valid exploration in science fiction, and that's where Diane comes in. She loses herself to religious fanaticism, entrenching herself into a cult of sorts initially, then chaining herself to a husband who devoutly seeks to be redeemed by God, to be rewarded when the end of the world arrives. At the beginning, we're told that Diane is almost as smart as her brother, Jason. That all fell apart for me further into the novel, though. She becomes submissive, doing what her husband tells her, not thinking for herself--her smarts disappear along with the stars. It's as if she's merely a tool, so Tyler sees the religious and human reaction to the Spin. Eventually she's fleshed out more, but it takes a special drug to bring her genius back.
It's interesting to look closely at how a hard science fiction novel works. The "what if" and the plot drive the story, using the characters as speakers and observers. Even though the plot is the central focus and the characters take a bit of a back seat, Spin shows us that those characters can still be imagined well and rounded out. I prefer to read stories that place character before plot, but I can see the benefits of the opposite in hard science fiction.
Wilson, Robert Charles. Spin. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2006.
NEXT UP: Hard Science Fiction.