Feb 20 2017

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

The sci-fi in this book was complex and thought-provoking but holy shit, everything else about this book was, at best, only marginally irritating, and at worst, deeply disturbing in its casually condescending, constantly self-pitying worldview.

So one night the stars go out, and three adolescents who essentially grew up together and never really grow apart after are forever changed. Jason, the eldest, decides to devote his life to science and to pleasing his demanding asshole of a father, E. D. His twin sister, Diane, finds solace in religion, particularly an offshoot of fundamental Christianity. The son of their housekeeper, Tyler, is two years younger than them and serves as the narrator. He looks up to Jason and is in love with Diane, and so spends the rest of his life trailing after one or the other in an incredibly tiresome display of spinelessness.

To which, whatever, but he transforms that spinelessness into this weird inability to view or treat other people as fully realized human beings (with the possible exception of Jason, who is, for lack of a better term, his bro.) He claims that the Spin, as the phenomenon that blacked out the night sky becomes known as, has trapped his generation in a panic and helplessness which he uses to excuse all sorts of absurd behavior. The whole episode with Molly, for example, could have been easily avoided if he’d just confronted her like a grown-up. Everyone’s just so selfish and/or single-minded and/or simple. The most complex person in the book is the twins’ alcoholic mother, and her a-ha moment at the end was so obvious it lacked any dramatic impact.

I also found it really insulting that every person of faith in this book is depicted as either a moron or an asshole. It’s like Robert Charles Wilson wanted to write an allegory of science and reason defeating, or at least confronting, religion and faith. And I’m not against that. I enjoyed Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Octavia Butler’s Parable Of The Talents, two books which challenge faith in the face of extraterrestrial influence, but Spin comes nowhere close to exploring this conflict, instead setting up paper targets to knock down while patting itself on the back at how clever it’s being, when really it’s just being facile and condescending.

And speaking of condescending, the book’s attitude towards a) women, and b) non-Westerners was thoroughly insulting. Diane spends her life constantly apologizing for the men around her (it’s like, yo girl, you don’t have to mean harm to be a total fucking asshole,) Molly’s a fucking viper, and Ina, the Indonesian doctor who helps Tyler, puts up with his casual insults because of her faith, not in religion but in an extraterrestrial (so score another one for “science”, I guess.) While I thought Mr Wilson’s use of the Minang culture was refreshingly unique, I did think it odd that his attention to detail was glaringly subjective. Indonesians don’t speak Malay. And Ina’s assertiveness wasn’t a product of a matrilineal heritage (with its problematic implication that the women of other Asian cultures are, by default, submissive): her intelligence and resourcefulness are hallmarks of most of the Southeast Asian women I know, Minang or otherwise, who were brought up to believe in education and to be wary of relying on a man/husband for survival. It reads like Mr Wilson gained a superficial understanding of a complex environment and decided to use it for his own narrative ends, on the assumption that his (white? male?) readers wouldn’t know better or care.

Honestly, if this book had been written/published in the mid to late 1900s, the very intriguing scientific concepts would have been enough, with the relatively unenlightened zeitgeist, to forgive this book the shallowness of its characters (and even then, plenty of old school sci-fi still reads as authentically humane.) But I expect better of sci-fi written and placed in the 21st century. This book attempts to excuse its contempt for women and brown people and the religious by claiming a Spin-induced existential void, but in this day and age, it just feels like privileged whining (especially with how most of the authority figures are also made out to be unrelenting asshats.) There are too many awesome books out there for me to waste my time reading stuff like this. The preview of Vortex that was included in my Tor.com copy of Spin further solidified my understanding that these books are essentially a continuation of the Great White Hunter/Savior story, because who fucking needs Big Salvation (which is a thing, I swear to God, that Tyler rails against) when you can choose to see yourself as the Chosen One instead (insert copious eye-rolling here.)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/02/20/spin-by-robert-charles-wilson/

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