Tag Archives: Series

On Robert Charles Wilson’s “Spin” (Spin Saga #1)

13 Jun

Set aside your prejudices against shoddy sci-fi covers, and believe me when I tell you that everything inside Robert Charles Wilson's Spin [2005] is worth your time.

Set aside your prejudices against shoddy sci-fi cover art, and believe me when I tell you that everything inside Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin [2005] is worth your time.

Imagine sitting underneath the starry night sky, picking out the constellations you half remember from that one field trip to the planetarium in fourth grade. Imagine its the clearest night with full view of the impossibly massive universe before you. Then imagine the stars die. Not in a slow fade or winking out one by one, but a clean, sudden, silent death that leaves the sky utterly blank. This is the horror that begins Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. This is an apocalypse that doesn’t come with zombies or fire. It doesn’t come all at once. It comes quietly, in one of the most frightening moments in sci-fi.

Tyler Dupree narrates the memory of seeing the stars disappear when he was 12 years old, sitting on a hilltop in October with his best and only friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, twins from the Big House. They are the children and heirs to a genius businessman and an alcoholic mother. Tyler is the son of the Big House’s maid. Across the social divide, the friends experience that night and the subsequent drama in three vastly different manners. The children grow up and learn that the disappearance of the stars wasn’t the only outcome of the “October Event,” or “the Spin” as it would later be dubbed. When a massive, planet-wide shield is erected over Earth’s atmosphere by powers unknown, time itself changed: for every second that passed on Earth, three years passed in the rest of the universe. The aging sun is suddenly approaching its death much sooner than expected, and human beings are forced to find creative ways to survive or cope with what looks like the apocalypse. Diane looks to religious extremism, Jason buries himself in the research of the Hypotheticals–those thought to be responsible for the Spin–and Tyler becomes a doctor and does everything within his power to carry on as if nothing had changed at all, burying his emotions and fear beneath a clinical denial.

"The spin" changed more than the stars. It changed the human experience of time. In a solar system like ours, that changed the deadline of Earth's very existence.

“The Spin” changed more than the stars. It changed Earth’s relationship to time. In a solar system like ours, that changed the deadline of the world’s very existence.

Throughout the novel, Tyler’s narrative alternates between a chronological retelling of his past–in which he navigates life under the Spin, following the Lawton siblings around, and trying to ignore humankind’s imminent doom–and Tyler’s present, in which he endures a mysterious illness while trying to escape the notice of the tyrannical New Reformasi government. In the chronological narrative, Jason leads a civilian aeronautics organization called Perihelion, whose method for dealing with the Spin is ambitious, creative, and extreme: with billions of years to play with outside of Earth’s atmosphere, humankind attempts to bioengineer and colonize Mars. In one of the most creative solutions to the prospect of extinction that I’ve ever read (in my many, many years of reading about solutions to prospects of extinction), RCW exploits the bizarre nature of the Spin and its impact on humanity’s perception of time. When Jason and Perihelion send payloads of durable bacteria to Mars, they only have to wait a few months before they see the results of evolution, right before their eyes. Mars is terraformed then populated then left to its own devices, and the result is a millennia-old culture of micro-evolved Martian humans.

I never get tired of referencing Total Recall. Bring on the Martians!

I never get tired of referencing Total Recall. Bring on the Martians and red filters! The Perihelion project aims to terraform Mars, taking advantage of the Spin’s alteration of time, in order to save Earth and learn more about the Hypotheticals. The results are beyond anything imaginable.

RCW’s vision for the apocalypse is truer than one might think on just reading the synopsis of Spin. Sure, you may think it’s unlikely that Hypothetical beings play God with time and space without rhyme or reason, and it is. Despite all of his intricate, scientific explanations (of which there are many) of the Spin and the Hypotheticals and Mars and time, RCW shows that he knows something even better than theories of the space-time continuum: he knows human nature. He knows society. He knows how people react when they see their own deaths in the stars, and this knowledge and its portrayal are the compelling components of this novel.

Despite the broad scope RCW gives on society’s reactions to trials and tribulation, the entire novel really takes place in Tyler’s head, and his attempt at objective observation. He applies his distanced view to everything he witnesses, including the events he holds dearest in his memory. He plays the voyeur to the drama of the Lawton siblings and almost idolizes everyone else’s reactions to the Spin, not matter how eccentric or drastic or fearful they might be. On one hand, Tyler’s lack of involvement gives him an historian’s view of events: “It wasn’t the Spin that had mutilated my generation. It was the lure and price of Big Salvation.” He is able to comment on the immobilizing fear felt by the generation that grew up with the Spin. It wasn’t the thought of death but the price of salvation that crippled humanity’s ability to be human. As Tyler’s objectivity slips away, and he becomes more human than he’s ever felt before, he trades his coldness for pain, his observation for action, and his idolization for love.

RCW knows human nature. Spin addresses the fearful, chaotic, desperate reactions to the apocalypse, which he contrasts with moments of charity, selflessness, and hope.

RCW knows human nature. Spin addresses the fearful, chaotic, desperate reactions to the apocalypse, which he contrasts with moments of charity, selflessness, and hope.

Read it if … you enjoy speculative fiction–the “what-if” kind of sci-fi. Spin can be a little heady at times. A good handle on moderately sciency language, or at least a respect for the rigorous type of sci-fi writing (i.e. not just lasers and hot cyborg sex), would be handy to have around. This is a great novel to spark some good discussions with your book club or your inner self or your cat, so also make sure you have a good processing method.

Don’t read it if … you’re not emotionally and spiritually stable enough to handle a harrowing fiction of the end of the world. While an actual situation like the Spin is far from realistic, people’s reactions to the concept of their own doom are very real. Riots, pillaging, cults, terrorism, starvation, general chaos are all so human, and if that scares you, steer clear of this book. And maybe go read something a little earthier, like Steinbeck or Austen–books that deal with regular mortality instead of apocalyptic mortality.

This book is like … The Plague by Albert Camus. Camus gives us another view of the apocalypse, albeit on a much smaller scale. A resurgence of the bubonic plague rears its head suddenly and horrifically in the Algerian port of Oran. Dr. Bernard Rieux shares Dr. Tyler Dupree’s bewildered attempt at objectivity, but with very different results. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is another fantastic novel in the sci-fi genre that plays with our understanding of time and its theoretical manipulations. How does one survive and stay human when a year to you is a hundred to the rest of humanity?

Robert Charles Wilson has won a billion awards (if you round up), and is now a huge blip on my sci-fi reading radar.

Robert Charles Wilson has won a billion awards (if you round up), and is now a huge blip on my sci-fi reading radar.

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On Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” Series

19 Feb
The Golden Compass is the first (and best) of Philip Pullman's acclaimed series His Dark Materials.

The Golden Compass is the first (and best) of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed series His Dark Materials.

I’m obviously a terrible person and no true Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan for having never read Philip Pullman’s groundbreaking, genre-making young adult trilogy, His Dark Materials. But I have since rectified my error, so you can all breathe easily again. To be honest, I tried to start the first book, The Golden Compass, multiple times throughout the years and never felt myself pulled into Pullman’s world of naphtha lamps and daemons, but something clicked this time around and I couldn’t put the first novel down. In The Golden Compass, I finally saw the magic that launched Pullman into fame, but I was utterly disappointed in the evolution of the trilogy.

The Golden Compass begins a fantastical story in another world where every human is accompanied by their daemon, an expression of a person’s soul in the form of non-human animals. An orphaned girl named Lyra, along with her daemon Pantalaimon, gallivant across their version of Oxford. They pull pranks and avoid any attempts by the professors of Jordan College to tame her.  She and her Pan are having the time of their lives until Gobblers arrive in Oxford and children begin disappearing. So begins a wild plot of political intrigue, great battles in the icy North, talking warrior polar bears, and a dark secret that Church is desperately trying to cover up. Lyra uses a strange tool–an alethiometer–to guide her through an adult world of danger and intrigue. The alethiometer allows her to see truths, even predict possible futures, and Lyra possesses the rare and mysterious gift of being able to decipher it. It’s her child’s eyes and innocence that lend her this ability, in addition to wisdom and rambunctious leadership skills. As  the plot progresses, it quickly becomes clear that His Dark Materials drives toward one of the greatest philosophical and theological topics of the past 2,000 years: dualism. And Pullman tackles it with as much vigor as Plato, but arguably in a more digestible fashion.

The first book meets the hype: it’s engaging and introduces one of the most well written child characters (or just characters in general) I have ever read. Lyra is playful, mischievous, unbelievably intelligent, and realistically in touch with her emotions and motives. She thrives unapologetically on weaving lies and fantasies. It’s the gift that gets her dubbed with the nickname “Silvertongue.” It’s such a pleasure to read Lyra that I could almost do without the intensely exciting plot. Almost.

Fantastic illustration by Caitlin Rose Boyle on her blog Sad, Sad Kiddie

Fantastic illustration by Caitlin Rose Boyle on her blog Sad Sad Kiddie

The Subtle Knife takes Lyra and company to new worlds and new realities in the second installation of His Dark Materials.

The Subtle Knife takes Lyra and company to new worlds and new realities in the second installation of His Dark Materials.

The Subtle Knife

I took a small break between reading The Golden Compass and its sequel, The Subtle Knife, because I wanted to relish in the first book’s magic. I really felt pulled into Pullman’s universe and was ready to follow the wily Lyra Silvertongue anywhere she went. In The Subtle Knife, she leads readers into alternate realities through  a doorway opened by Lord Asriel’s actions at the end of book one. New world-trotter that she is, Lyra opens up the story to a much grander purpose. This is no longer a matter of missing children solved by a nifty golden compass. Our little hero gets wrapped up in a plot that will move Heaven and Earth, and joining her is a young boy from a world more familiar to readers. Will Parry joins the cast as Lyra’s counterpart. He comes from our world. In a jarring introduction, Pullman juxtaposes Lyra and her foreignness with Will and his familiarity. This is the point where Lyra starts changing, and the point where I started getting mad.

Lyra is called upon to take action, but ignores duty in favor of selfish motives. It’s her first mistake, and with it she loses her nerve, her verve, and everything that makes her a lovable, unique character. As a consequence, her relationship with Will turns sour–a former partnership that becomes imbalanced, with Lyra’s role as the apologetic, docile, decidedly female sidekick. She says to Will, “I’m only going to do what you ask, from now on.” The shift is so sudden and complete that I felt a sickening anger at what had become of this singular, strong-willed character. This sudden shift tainted the entire book for me. I’m of the opinion that The Subtle Knife falls well short of expectations set by The Golden Compass–in execution, in plot, in logic–but I don’t know if feel that way simply because of my bitterness. When reading the first book, I was thrilled I had found a character whose gender didn’t come into play in the least bit. Her role as daughter/girl/almost-woman didn’t matter. Lyra was a child and a person and a robust character. Suddenly, she is diminished to the flood of stereotypes and predispositions of femaleness as represented in literature. And now I have to stop writing about TSK, because I’m getting angry again.

I love this portrayal of Lyra and Will: the two of them as partners in crime (by the talented Lokelani).

I love this portrayal of Lyra and Will: the two of them as partners in crime. Here, they are depicted as equals, which is how I would like to remember them. (By the talented Lokelani).

The final book of the series, The Amber Spyglass, brings an unsurprising conclusion to the series.

The final book of the series, The Amber Spyglass, brings an unsurprising conclusion to the series.

The Amber Spyglass

In the third and final installation of His Dark Materials, Pullman’s epic story unravels even farther, before being tied up in weird, awkward little bow in the end. Gone is the tightly wound plot of The Golden Compass. I even missed the somewhat collected narrative of the second book. The Amber Spyglass introduces a multitude of new realities, one of which might be the end of our little heroes Lyra and Will. In the meantime, old characters reemerge to play crucial roles in a great battle against the Authority. Several new species are introduced to make the book feel like a hodgepodge of several different fantasy novels, and all the cost of losing touch with main characters and primary plot lines. It feels like Pullman would rather have written five more books of His Dark Materials, but his publishers told him to stop, so he just squeezed the abridged versions into TAS. It’s an example of a great story injured by epic scale.

In plenty of instances, I rode the waves of intensity and entertainment, and I was completely satisfied with how side characters developed. But that contentment was always interrupted by inconsistencies, subplots that never seemed to add up, and the ever-present egalitarian angst over Lyra’s devolving personality. One paragraph made me stop and actually put the book down in frustration (I apologize to anyone in that Caffe Ladro who had to endure my scoffs of indignation and heavy sighs of hopelessness):

“How lucky Will was that she was awake now to look after him! He was truly fearless, and she admired that beyond measure; but he wasn’t good at lying and betraying and cheating, which all came to her as naturally as breathing. When she thought of that, she felt warm and virtuous, because she did it for Will, never for herself.”

Now, to be fair, this would be fine if Lyra were some kind of parody of femininity–built to be a sacrifice for and foil of gender disparity–but she’s not. Rather, she begins as a compelling, intelligent, singular person, then steps back several decades into the land of gender norms of biblical proportions.

Lyra recovers some of her vibrancy and her strength toward the end of TAS, but she is ever the outsider, the alien, the Other (yep, I used the pretentious, postmodern, capitalized “O” word, but I only pull it out in emergencies like this one). Her character suffers drastic changes because of Will–who, possibly because of his maleness or his origins on Earth, is allowed to stay steadfast and true to himself.

Pullman should have quit while he was ahead, as far as his main character is concerned. I would have appreciated The Golden Compass as a stand-alone novel. It’s a brilliant young adult novel with a unique protagonist. But I don’t think I have ever been so disappointed in a book series this good–a book series that has changed lives, but could have changed so many more had not an admirable protagonist devolved into a servile, simpering caricature of archaic femininity.

The incredible John Howe illustrated one of the final scenes of The Amber Spyglass. Indeed, Pullman's images are magical and epic. His imagination alone earns him his reputation.

The incredible John Howe illustrated one of the final scenes of The Amber Spyglass. Indeed, Pullman’s images are magical and epic. His imagination alone earns him his reputation.

On Rereading Your Youth

10 Jan

220px-Wheel_of_time.svgI mentioned earlier that I’m dredged up an old favorite series from my childhood. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was my comfort food/safety blanket/imaginary friend back when I was a loner in high school. Well, now I’m a loner in the mid-market workforce, so I thought I’d pick it up again (especially since Jordan’s final, posthumous installment was just released) to enjoy myself a little old-timey escapism.

Here’s the thing about rereading the things you loved as a younger you:

Rereading these old favorites makes me feel like I'm failing to act my age. Like this guy. Buy yourself a cardigan and grow up, you punk!

Rereading these old favorites makes me feel like I’m failing to act my age. Like this guy. Buy yourself a cardigan and grow up, you punk!

You start becoming your younger you again. You start saying, “Whatevs,” and, “Eff that,” to your loved ones. You listen to only Green Day and Muse albums on repeat while a single tear poignantly rolls down your cheek. You believe again that everything revolves around you. And most importantly, you remember what it’s like to immerse yourself in a story, to sink below the line that separates analytical reading from emotional reading, bodily reading.

Robert Jordan isn’t a great writer. His novels will never be called capital-L Literature. But he takes the cake at creating a story (even if it is about magic and Dragons and ultimate evil embodied in a big fiery dude) that I not only find realistic but that I envy.

And just like last time around, I have a lady boner for this character. Don't ask me why, since she's as outrageous as a Red Sister in a frat house, but in my mind she's played by Natalie Portman. 'Nough said.

And just like last time around, I have a lady boner for this character. Don’t ask me why, since she’s as outrageous as a Red Sister in a frat house, but in my mind she’s played by Natalie Portman. ‘Nough said.

I won’t spend time reviewing each book of the series. I’ll leave that for the servants of the WoT fandom. The series begins with a poor facsimile of every great fantasy story preceding Jordan, namely Tolkien’s Middle Earth novels, but by book two of this hulking, fourteen-novel series, the author has hit his stride. Jordan takes a typical story–young people coming of age and discovering they bear the mountainous duty of saving not only the known world but the fabric of time itself–and zooms in to a level of detail no one else in their right mind would tackle. And in the end, Wheel of Time became an epic that outlived its author (may he rest in the most incredible peace). Jordan left a legacy that impacted millions of lives by the sheer vastness of his universe: in it, a place for everyone. As a teenager reading the series, I found myself becoming attached to the few female characters who struggled against the gendered roles Jordan created. I found myself (and find myself) growing emotionally with these characters, with these collections of words on paper, and this is the ultimate reading experience, the blockbuster of contemporary books.

Wheel of Time may not be canonized in future English majors’ Norton anthologies, but it reminds me of a crucial spirit among books that must not be lost: quality story. Plot–with all its complications and conflicts and climaxes–can’t be sacrificed even for craftsmanship (albeit there’s a line that can be crossed, and I’m looking at you, Stephenie Meyer) or theory (and now I’m looking at you, Don DeLillo) or branding (I’m looking at both of you, James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks, and now my neck is sore from looking accusingly at all these people, so I’m done). Now, aside from this reread, the only thing left in perfecting my fond childhood memories of the Wheel of Time series is for HBO to create a 14-20 season television series.