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SPIN – don’t call it a comeback

August 23, 2011

Last week the World Science Fiction Society announced the Hugo award winners at WorldCon in Reno, NV. I’d like to congratulate local Portlander Mary Robinette Kowal on winning a Hugo for her short story “For Want of a Nail.” I look forward to reading it since so many of my favorite stories and authors have the words “Hugo Award Winner” associated with them.

And that got me thinking about one of my favorite reads in recent years, the 2006 Hugo winner for best novel, Robert Charles Wilson’s SPIN.

For me, the love of science fiction began with comic books, then Star Wars. But that’s generational. When I started reading books I spent a summer with my step-dad’s worn-out 3-volume copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I loved that box-set. A few years later as I grew old enough to watch old reruns of The Twilight Zone I discovered that a lot of the stories Rod Serling used were plucked right out of those pages. And even more years later, after moving up and down the west coast, I hunted down a used copy of the same box set I’d enjoyed as a boy.

At the time a lot of those stories were written it seemed like the science fiction genre was a blend of the fantastic and the scientifically conceivable, with some kind of ignorant access character stumbling through it all. Okay, I guess that’s general enough to still be true today, but the stories changed around the time of the Apollo missions to space. It’s as if seeing a man on the moon (1969) took the creative wind out of the science fiction author’s sails.

Between the mind numbing atrocities of World War II and the bipolar human achievements of the Space Race and the Cold War, something changed in science fiction. The stories I keep finding from that era are more technical, theoretically reasonable, explainable.

That’s it. All of a sudden everything could be explained. The wonder, the awe found in the earlier stories, it was suddenly harder to find. I drifted away from science fiction for a while. I started running with a different crowd, more classics, the Greeks, the Russians. Poetry. And then, when I needed it most, I found that wonder again in SPIN, a science fiction story about character.

SPIN establishes the high concept stuff right up front and then the whole book is just the story of a man and his family and friends living in a world where things are just a little different than they are for you and me. Here it is: one night all the stars disappear. Blink. Just like that. We spend the next fifteen years or so dealing with the results of that night, sometimes learning secrets, but always just living. There’s a ticking-clock, too, so we know it’s all leading up to a desperate attempt.

Oh, and it gets passionate and evocative, and there’s science aplenty. But Robert Charles Wilson doesn’t have to beat you over the head with the conceit, because (A) it’s ambient and (B) it’s not about that, it’s about people. The more I learned about the big idea, the more I read and discovered what was really going on, the more wonder I felt and the harder it was to put this book down.

SPIN will always be the book that brought me back to science fiction.

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8 Comments
  1. Do you go back and read the old sci-fi greats? Or, do you stay with more contemporary sci-fi since SPIN was the one which brought you back? If so, you should definitely read some of the classics :)

    • I’m on something of a contemporary sci-fi kick, but w/out bias against the greats. Also, I know I’m speaking with vastly broad generalities in drawing a line in the sand of the 1950’s and saying “before this…” and “after this…” but that’s a helpful generalization for me. I’ve recently enjoyed books by Robert Charles Wilson, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. And Nivens’ Ringworld, and Banks’ Consider Phlebas. The Hugo awards list is one of the ways I pick random sci-fi titles.

  2. Yup, on the whole the Hugo (and Nebula) list is great — some notable exceptions — a nice way to get authors (with the hope that at some point their other lesser known works are read). I’ve read 4/5ths of the list at least — I’m lacking entries post 2000 and I skipped most of the fantasy titles.

  3. Last year I tore through Richard Avery’s “The Expendables” set.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Cooper#As_Richard_Avery

    That was pretty fun, pretty sexist mid-70’s macho sci-fi with some unintentional racism and intentional xenophobia, which actually enhanced the read. It was like time traveling back the 70’s and eavesdropping on a conversation.

    • Oh, Edmund Cooper? Hehe, he’s fun but yeah, does not produce classics. You should check out my blog for some reviews of 50s/60s/70s works. For example, his wife was a famous sci-fi writer, Leigh Brackett — she wrote some nice pulp stories. I prefer social science fiction — Ursula Le Guin (Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed), John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up), Robert Silverberg (The World Inside, Hawksbill Station), D. G. Compton (The Unsleeping Eye, The Quality of Mercy, The Steel Crocodile)… If you need a top ten list of 60s/70s social sci-fi just let me know — although most of the works I listed above would be in that list.

  4. You’re welcome!

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