There is a long rich tradition of end-of-the-world subject matter in the genre of speculative fiction. Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, the 2006 Hugo award winner for best novel, uses many of the clichés and tropes of the often-stereotyped doomsday stories and takes it to places that are rich with storytelling potential and characterization, often missing from the more typical end-of-the-world story.
Even Wilson's particular doomsday scenario is imaginative, far beyond the stereotype: one night, a membrane is draped around the Earth such that all the stars go out. The next morning, the sun comes up, and it appears that all is well until night falls again and there remain no stars and no moon. After the relatively mild initial panic, the membrane is explored and tested by space agencies that determine that the membrane has fascinating time-space properties, such that a little more than three years pass outside the membrane for every second that passes within it. The membrane serves to protect the inhabitants of the planet, filtering out centuries of radiation that would otherwise destroy life, but it also shrouds the planet, literally, in mystery. Who would do this and why? And eventually the voices of astrophysicists are heard—at the current rate, the sun will make the Earth uninhabitable within a few decades of Earth-time, as thousands of millennia pass outside the membrane.
One of the clichés of the worlds-end story is a huge cast of characters around whom the narrative jumps about, providing a human perspective on cataclysmic events. Wilson eschews this cliché, concentrating on a relatively small cast of characters, specifically Tyler Dupree and his two closest friends, twins Jason and Diane Lawton. Tyler and the Lawtons are around 12 years old when the membrane encircles the Earth and so offer the perspective of a generation that can remember when it didn't exist but who will grow up under its influence. Wilson also plays a narrative fiat, allowing one of these characters to become a central figure in the exploration and attempts to overcome the membrane.
The Lawtons' father, E.D., is already a major figure in Washington circles when the story begins, an industrialist making his fortune in alternatives to satellite technology. And when the membrane closes, cutting off any contact with existing satellites and making any new ones unusable, his technology helps to keep civilization alive. Jason is being molded by his father to follow in his footsteps and is already showing signs of genius. Unfortunately, his attention to Jason means that Diane is left in the cold, helping her to bond with Tyler in something more than friendship, a relationship both of them are hard put to define. As they grow older, Jason heads a think-tank sponsored by the government to overcome the membrane, and hires Jason to work for him as a corporate physician. Diane, on the other hand, begins to explore the spiritual and religious effects of the membrane, eventually joining a cult that believes the end-times are coming and that attempts to thwart the membrane are not only doomed to failure but sacrilegious as well.
Wilson also plays a couple of narrative tricks that make the story that much more compelling. The first is structural one—it becomes clear that the chronology of the membrane and human attempts to overcome it are a flashback, interspersed with chapters describing Tyler writing that history between bouts of some kind of illness while he is on the run with Diane. In his lucid moments, he describes a giant arch out in the ocean that he can see from his hotel and alludes to events that his fictional contemporary audience should know already but that real readers have to uncover as they progress through the story. What is the huge arch out in the ocean? Why are he and Diane on the run? Where is Jason? And did the Earth survive? The memoir he is writing will eventually reveal the answers to these questions.
The second narrative twist is what really allows the book to be such a strong story: instead of the focus being on the cataclysm and the characters' lives being secondary to it, Wilson has written a character-centric story, and while the membrane informs and causes events to take place, the focus is more on the interactions between these three characters who love each other in different and dysfunctional ways. Taking a step back, in many ways, Spin is a coming of age story for Tyler with an unorthodox backdrop as a setting. And despite the characters being relatively young when the membrane first arrives, Spin is in no way a juvenile story. The ethical and emotional conflicts that take place between the characters as they age are far more worldly than are found in YA novels. And while the membrane is not the focus of the story, it is also never far away, as the characters have to deal with the knowledge that the world is going to end in their lifetime and deal with the repercussions of the rest of the world knowing it as well.
The result is a powerful novel about the human condition, the nature of the most basic relationships—brother/sister, parent/child, friends, lovers—under a kind of stress that the reader can only imagine. Wilson doesn't make the story easier by having his main characters out as paragons of anything; they are human and flawed and amazing for those flaws throughout the novel, and their personal crises are captivating despite the backdrop of the struggle to save the world. And, to be honest, the plan that is eventually worked out is as big as any space opera and utterly completely practical and possible to a world at our existing technology conditions. Wilson is also not a romantic about what would happen if such a crisis were to befall the human race—while there are people who would be struggling to find an answer, there would be far more people content to live out the rest of their lives in the same everyday fashion, tinged with only a little desperation as they pretend that the end is not approaching.
Spin ends up succeeding on a number of levels; using Wilson's narrative structure, the end of the world becomes something of a detective story (how did it happen and how did we end up where we are?), engaging and compelling for its exotic premise. It is also one of the most powerful character pieces I have read in a while; the reader cares about these messed up people and wants them to resolve their issues, not least of all because such resolution could possibly effect the survival of the human race. Spin certainly merits its award-winning status and promises to be not only a book I recommend to readers, but one to which I intend to return many times.