Book Review: Vortex

When I read Spin back in 2005, I was awoken to a whole new world of what science fiction could do. This guy, Robert Charles Wilson, a veteran by any standard yet new to me, balanced the grandly cosmic and the tragically human with a subtlety that’s almost sublime. But when I read his follow-up to the story of the Spin and the Hypothetical beings behind it, I felt like he lost that balance.

While Spin proposed one of the great SF scenarios, the sort of “Big Idea” that would make any Golden Age or contemporary hard science fiction writer proud, Wilson quickly made it clear that it was those insignificant, ant-like humans whose story he was really interested in telling. In Axis, it seems, he was suddenly more interested in exploring that Big Idea. But the characters didn’t grab me and without them as an anchor, I didn’t feel the need to find out the truth about the Hypotheticals.

But he pulled me back in with Vortex. Suddenly I cared about the characters again, the returning cast as well as the new ones. Coincident with, if not because of that, he got me interested in the central mystery of the Hypotheticals themselves. These are the inscrutable beings who set up the Spin, a local distortion in time with the effect of taking humanity to the death throes of its own Sun within a single generation. By the end of Vortex, we get to find out why, and the answer is, to me, appropriate and satisfying.

The story follows a dual narrative in alternating chapters. In the immediate aftermath of the Spin, vagrancy and mental illness are still way up, while a world tries to cope with being thrown epochs into the future, surviving the overwhelming energy of their own expanded Sun only at the mercy of an inscrutable and possibly indifferent alien technology.

Sandra is one of these overworked mental health professionals, Officer Bose is one good cop in a deeply crooked system, and Orrin Mather is the recently remanded ward of the state neither of them can quite figure out.

It’s in Orrin Mather’s notebooks that we find the second narrative, but, paradoxically, it tells the story of two people who will live nearly 10, 000 years in the future. Turk Findley we last saw at the close of the previous book: taken up bodily into a Hypothetical technology called a temporal arch. His new friend, Treya, was born in the era he finds himself expelled into. Together they are under the custody of an emotionally- and mentally-linked political collective called Vox, which hopes to meet and, perhaps, become one with the Hypotheticals. For the two of them, alone amongst the enforced consensus of Vox, there is doubt as to whether this is a desirable outcome.

Whether Mather, a mentally-challenged, barely literate young man, could have written the stories found in these notebooks himself is dubious. But the possibility that they are true is far less likely (if not to the reader).

I wasn’t sure if I would read the final book in this trilogy after being let down by the second. But I’m glad I did. If you’ve already read Axis and were thinking of skipping Vortex, you should reconsider.

If you’ve read Spin only, that’s a tougher call. Wilson himself has said that Spin is a stand-alone novel that happens to have two sequels. You can’t really skip the middle novel and jump to the end, as the latter two are more of a package deal. So the question is, is it worth reading Axis, which is good, but not great, in order to set up Vortex?

The story of the characters from Spin is over by novel’s end, but the mystery of the Hypotheticals remains. If you want resolution to the Big Idea plot points, keep reading. If you were more interested in the human side of things, you can reasonably stop with Spin. Wilson’s Hugo-winner is an exceptional novel taken on its own. But the series as a whole has its merits, as well.

(Tor, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

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