When the first character a book introduces is a boy named Isaac, and the two adults closest to him in the odd collective where he is growing up are Avram (Dr. Avram Dvali) and Mrs. Rebka, even this heathen knows the book is going to be about encounters with transcendence and possible sacrifices. Axis is about a number of other things as well, but that is the heart of the story.
Axis is the sequel to Spin, which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2006. I read Spin back in 2007 (Doreen read it in 2017 and wrote about it here) and only remember the general gist of the book: the earth was placed into a time bubble, such that time passed much more slowly than in the rest of the universe, with seconds on earth corresponding to thousands of years outside the bubble. At the beginning of Axis, earth has been out of its bubble for about a human generation; during the spin billions of years passed in most of the rest of the universe. The same beings who put the earth into a time bubble also placed an Arch, spanning a thousand miles or so, in the middle of the Indian Ocean that serves as a gateway to another world, one that is not only suitable for human life but that appears to have been seeded with earthly organisms at a date in the distant past. People have been exploring and moving to this new world for a few decades, but it is still recognizably a frontier, and sparsely settled outside of one major city. During the time of the spin, humans on earth also figured out how to take advantage of the time differential and seeded Mars with life. They followed that up with a colony on Mars. It, too, was eventually put into a temporal bubble, so by the time of Axis humans from Mars are distinct from earth humans but not a separate species.
The action of Axis takes place on the New World beyond the Arch. Wilson first introduces Isaac, some of the people in the isolated commune where he is growing up, and a visitor named Sulean Moi about whom Isaac observes, “Like the others at the compound, she was interested in the Hypotheticals—the unseen beings who had rearranged the heavens and the earth.” (p. 12) This is the community most directly interested in transcendence, as represented in the book by the Hypotheticals. In the second chapter, Wilson offers a counterpoint with Lise Adams, recently divorced and slightly at loose ends but trying to unravel a mystery from her childhood, and Turk Findley, a charter pilot who hadn’t exactly precipitated Lise’s divorce but hadn’t been irrelevant to it either. Events pick up when an annual meteor shower that Lise and Turk have gone to a restaurant to see is accompanied by the fall of massive amounts of what looks like volcanic ash.
Something is odd about the ashfall. “Absurdly, impossibly, something the shape of a starfish drifted past the [window]. It was gray but speckled with light. It must have weighed nearly nothing because it floated in the weak breeze like a balloon, and when it reached the deck of the patio it crumbled into powder and a few larger fragments.” (p. 33) After going outside for a brief closer look, Turk brushes some flakes of ash off of his jacket onto a table. One bit looks like an acorn, but “Oaks didn’t grow in Equatoria. The object in the ashfall was about the size of his thumb. It was saucer-shaped at one end and tapered to a blunt point at the other—an acorn, or maybe a tiny egg wearing a minuscule sombrero. It appeared to be made of the same stuff as the fallen ash, and when he touched it with the tip of the pen it dissolved as if it possessed no particular substance at all.” (p. 35) Examining the ash more closely “showed up a number of these objects, if you could call them ‘objects’—the faintly structured remains of things that appeared to have been manufactured. There was a tube about a centimeter long, perfectly smooth; another about the same size, but knobbed like a length of spine from some small animal, a mouse, say. There was a six-pronged thorn; there was a disk with a miniature, crumbling spokes, like a bicycle wheel; there was a beveled ring. Some of these things glinted with a faint remnant light.” (p. 35)
Wilson tells the stories that form this novel slowly and carefully, with an accumulation of detail that makes choosing brief quotations difficult. His pace is not that of snappy dialogue, quick reversals and dramatic confrontations; rather, it is the slightly halting conversation of regular people trying to figure out whether or not events are extraordinary. The characters, who have come through an Arch across untold distances of space to a world that was made for human habitation, know that there are forces far greater than human at work in the universe. The question is what to make of these particular events, and how to live with a world where the transcendent may intrude at any time.
In due course, the two groups of characters make contact with each other. Lise is trying to find out what happened to her father, who disappeared in Equatoria when she was a teenager. He was an academic and had been working on a book about the New World as a constructed artifact when he went out one day and never came back. His interests had led him to make contact with a clandestine network of people, known as Fourths, who had taken a life-extending treatment developed by the Martian humans. The treatment was derived from the Martians’ greater knowledge of the Hypotheticals’ biomechanical technology. The Fourth treatment is proscribed both on earth and the New World. Lise’s ex-husband works for the US Department of Genomic Security, which openly works to prevent unauthorized tinkering and charlatans making such claims, but has a secret arm that tries to gain access to the Martians’ knowledge. It is an obvious analog to the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security (Axis was published during George W. Bush’s second term as president) and serves as Wilson’s commentary on science fiction adventure stories full of rules-be-damned secret agents.
Lise’s father knew Dr. Dvali, and Turk knows where he might currently be found. As more of the peculiar ash falls, the two of them try to make their way to where Isaac and the rest of the commune lives. Genomic Security takes an interest, and everyone is quickly in much greater danger. There is peril from the other direction too, as anyone familiar with Isaac’s story will know. The transcendent intrudes directly into their lives, and it may be more than mortal flesh can bear.
I liked how the characters’ stories took place within the worlds, the sense that the places on Equatoria had not been purpose-built for the novel’s characters, that the secondary characters had stories of their own. I liked that Wilson was content for his explanations to be incomplete. It did not feel like handwaving to make a pre-chosen story work but rather the genuine unknowability of nonhuman phenomena with aeons of their own development. I liked the openness of the ending. I liked how Wilson portrays generational conflict, and generations simply not understanding each other because their touchstone experiences differ. I found a lot to like about Axis, even though I am not in any hurry to read the third in the set, Vortex. On the other hand, I waited about ten years between the first two; maybe when the time comes for me to read the third, I will find plenty to like waiting for me there, too.