Post Road Magazine #16

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

by Yael Goldstein

A few years ago I decided that I loved science fiction. This was a bold decision to make, since I had yet to actually read anything that qualified. But I had developed a yearning for a certain kind of book, a book dense with psychological truth and lit by incandescent prose, where the laws of nature bent and twisted in subtle, scary ways, and in the process revealed thrilling facts not only about the characters, but about all of humankind. I figured the genre was just about saturated with these things. Then I spent three years trying to find one.

I’m not saying I didn’t find some good stuff in those three years. I found some good stuff. I even found some great stuff, if Dune counts as stuff. But I didn’t find what I was after. In fact, the more I read, the more precise and elusive this what-I-was-after seemed to be.

I discovered, for instance, that the book had to be set in the present or very near future. It could not involve time travel. It could not involve evil trans-universal corporations. It could not involve space aliens, especially not space aliens in leopard-printed unitards. In fact, it could not involve unitards at all. It had to be about real, normal, fully human, unremarkably wardrobed people, the kind of people you’d meet in a Richard Russo novel. It’d be Margaret Atwood–esque, but with more-interesting science; it’d be like the issue of a drunken night of passion between Margaret Atwood and Richard Feynman as raised by Richard Russo. I had secretly started to suspect that I would never reach my own potential as a writer until I found it. I had started to despair.

Then about six months ago my friend Dave called. He was excited, but he usually is. “I think I’ve found it,” he said. Dave is a science fiction writer himself and had been my primary source of recommendations all along. The book he was recommending now was Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson. I didn’t think it sounded all that promising—now I can’t imagine why—but still, I started it as soon as I got home from the bookstore. I didn’t put it down again for another ten hours. I read all night, and would have read all week if I’d had to. This book was it, my nerdy grail.

It is a delicately realized love story, an incisive exploration of the human mind’s reaction to terror, a gripping portrait of the phenomenology of religion, a paean to the pursuit of pure knowledge—and also a totally awesome adventure tale about what happens on Earth when the stars suddenly go black. The latest discoveries in cosmology give rise to essential and elegant plot points. Complex calculations about the passage of time are not only lucidly lovely, but—I swear—exciting. I was actually laughing from sheer joy through the last forty pages.

When I finally closed the book, giddy and exhausted, and exhaustively satisfied, there was a part of me that wanted to roll over with a self-involved grunt and let science fiction show itself out. But instead I let it stay and cuddle, and it’s still hanging around. Which is to say, I’m still reading sci-fi, just not as urgently. Sometimes I wonder now whatever was so urgent about finding a book like Spin. I tend to trust my literary cravings like a pregnant woman trusts her yen for peanut butter. Cravings know what’s good for you, even if you don’t. I still don’t know what vital narrative nutrient I got from Spin, but I think it must have something to do with Robert Charles Wilson’s definition of science fiction. My new literary hero calls sci-fi “literature that imaginatively inhabits the idea of human contingency as it relates to time, space, history, consciousness, and perception.” I think it’s true that what I’d wanted out of my nerdy grail was some kind of an exploration of human contingency and its flip side, human necessity. Or, anyway, of what seems to arise necessarily from the givens that themselves arose accidentally from our evolution, our history, and the evolution and history of our universe. And what could do this better than a sci-fi book that holds most of its fictional world recognizably constant? Frankly, when I think of it that way, I wonder why everyone isn’t looking for Spin.

Yael Goldstein is the author of the novel Overture, which will be released in paperback this August as The Passion of Tasha Darsky. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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