Robert Charles Wilson – Spin, Axis, Vortex

Nov 11th, 2012 by Sebastian in news

Spin by Robert Charles WilsonI read Spin a number of years ago, shortly after it won the Hugo Award. As a rule I try to read the Hugo winners. I don’t always agree with the choices (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Seriously?) as the best SciFi of the year, but I find that the winners (and the nominees) are almost always an enjoyable read. (While I am on the subject: how lame is it that I can find a list of Hugo winners by category on Wikipedia but not on the Hugo site itself?) Spin is the fascinating tale of an Earth that has been encased in, well something that slows down time relative to the rest of the universe, so that while only decades pass on earth, a few billion years have passed everywhere else. Mr. Wilson does not attempt to explain how such a thing could be possible (not like the brilliant Robert L. Forward would have), but rather explores the many ramifications – personal, political, and cultural – of this event. Spin was a satisfying yarn and won me over as a fan of the author, but it left open a number of critical questions, such as: who or what are the mysterious “Hypotheticals”, why did they encase the Earth in that time shield thingee, and why did they construct the Arch, a massive portal in the Indian Ocean that is a gateaway to another world?

This story is continued in Axis. I just read Axis recently because I had lost my first copy, just as I had started it, when it fell out of my pocket at a train station (or so I surmise). As it turns out, this was a fortutitous event, because I would have been very irritated to finish Axis and then be forced to wait four years for the final volume of the trilogy, Vortex to appear. As it happened, I was able to read these back-to-back.

Axis and Vortex have a very different flavour than Spin, concentrating much more on personal stories with a limited number of characters and less on the larger social vision. Unfortunately, I found these personal arcs to be less than compelling and rather unsatisfying. For example in Axis, one central character wants to know what happened to her father, who disappeared years before. She does eventually find out what happens, but she does not experience anything; rather, she is simply told. Axis also manages to close without answering any of the questions posed in Spin, leaving us only to speculate about the fate of two other main characters.

Vortex takes place ten thousand years in the future; or rather, it takes place a few years after “the Spin”, during which the characters are reading a story about the future. The characters are constantly wondering “could this story really depict future events?” but this is merely annoying to me; I knew the story was about future events because it is a continuation of the story told in Axis! This odd conceit failed for me because of this absolute lack of ambiguity. However, I can say that Vortex does in fact clarify most of the questions posed in Spin, but in an awkward final chapter that is almost a textbook example of deus ex machina – *SPOILER* one of the main characters actually becomes what is essentially a god, and then explains everything to the reader.

All things considered, I would recommend Spin to any science fiction reader, but there is no pressing reason to continue with the sequels. I will be looking for other titles by Robert Charles Wilson because I find him to be a good writer. I think he just got stuck trying to answer some really tough cosmic questions that he posed himself in Spin.

Now on to the rant. In the ten-thousand-year future of Vortex, Mr. Wilson describes two principle types of societies that have evolved, the “cortical democracies” and the “limbic democracies.” Members of these societies are implanted with a “network node” at birth and can therefore directly interface with machines and knowledge, as well as experience enhanced social communication. They use “mediated collective reasoning to make policy decisions.” The difference between these two approaches is that the limbic democracies use logical and rational methods to make decisions, whereas the cortical democracies use more primitive areas of the brain in order to create an emotional and intuitive consensus.

Whether this was intentional or not, I definitely understood “cortical democracies” as a direct metaphor for religion. Mr. Wilson even went on to describe how certain fundamental axioms (i.e. religious tenants) were built into the cortical democracies, and how these axioms could lead to cognitive dissonance and eventually mass insanity if they were contradicted by evidence. An indeed, how else would you describe the reaction of fundamentalist religions to the facts of evolutionary science, or the age of the universe, or practically any other scientific truth?

But for me the most frightening aspect of the cortical democracies (and of religions) is the complete exposure of your beliefs and the complete scrutiny of those beliefs by the collective. I have observed this when visiting Christian evangelical church services – one member of the congregation is overtaken by the “holy spirit” and stands up and begins to sway their arms and maybe even “speak in tongues” (i.e. glossolalia). Soon enough, more will follow. As an outside observer, I can see quite clearly what is happening here: one person decides to make a public display of piety. Whether they are sincere or not, how does this leave the rest of the group? Clearly they are under enormous pressure to make the same sort of displays, otherwise they are publicly admitting that they are less pious, or even worse, not connected to god or the holy spirit or whatever in the way that their brethren apparently are. I am no great fan of Ayn Rand, but I think she accurately defined this kind of hell in The Fountainhead when Ellsworth Toohey explains his ultimate goal: “A world where the thought of each man will be not his own, but an attempt to guess the thought of the brain of his neighbour who’ll have no other thought of his own  but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbour who’ll have no thought – and so on.” It is this type of thinking, and this type of society, that is most susceptible to authoritative control. It is this type of thinking and this type of society that are a significant threat to personal freedom as well as open and free political systems.

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