Monday, June 29, 2009

Spin (2006) and Accelerando

Space is, as Douglas Adams noted, big. Depressingly so, if you're a hard science fiction writer. Earth is a good few light-years away from anything interesting, and so a lot of space opera handwaves faster-than-light travel, gleefully ignoring relativity and providing the ability to skip across large swaths of space. Spin and Accelerando take a different route, playing with our ideas of time, making stories (mostly) isolated to the solar system have a much larger scope. They are both excellent books - and beyond that, have very little in common.

Robert Charles Wilson's Spin is, at its heart, a classical slow puzzler like Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, where the protagonists try to decipher all of the consequences of "the night the stars disappeared from the sky." It also holds the record for the shortest time to fascinate me of any of the books I've read so far, from the first chapter heading: "4 x 109 A.D." Spin only has one idea (which I won't spoil), but it's a new idea and well-developed; the book captures some of the audacious joy of discovery, as if you were watching Bohr and Heisenberg debate quantum mechanics.

The first time through Spin, I was mostly charmed by its central idea, but on the second go-round, I started to appreciate how well it did everything else. The alternating present-and-flashback storytelling moves a plot that might be a little meandering otherwise, and the characterization is excellent. Spin covers a period of many, many years, but by keeping the narrative focused on three friends, Wilson builds a very strong emotional center to the novel. Wilson creates a profound mood of uncertainty, tracing society's response to events that might be either millennial or apocalyptic, and at the same time matching it with the personal growth of his protagonists. Of the books I read (for the first time) for this project, Spin is probably my favorite.

Accelerando is Spin's polar opposite; think Neuromancer if you made it ten times more ambitious and replaced William Gibson with someone who has actually used a computer. Thirty pages in, I loved the relentless pace, the constant flow of ideas, the newly sentient lobsters, everything. Stross has the knack of making world-building exposition very funny, much like the opening of Snow Crash or the interludes in Stranger in a Strange Land. About sixty pages in, I felt like a whole story had already gone by, and I realized (not so surprisingy, I guess) that the pace wasn't going to slow at all, and I started to get tired. Accelerando pitches its details quickly, making the reader sort most of them out, but also tries to catch people up - so there's a cycle of confusion, understanding, and repetitive summary. The pace eventually makes some of the ideas lose their interest; at times, the sheer volume of new concepts thrown out can make it feel like Stross is playing scifi madlibs. I think he gets away with this high density in part because many of his topics - simulated realities, emergent AI, the singularity, et cetera, have been done in more detail elsewhere (Gibson, Vernor Vinge, even The Matrix). It also helps to have a background in, um, random computer science and physics - there's a few plot details I wouldn't have caught without having read Ken Thompson's Reflections on Trusting Trust. If you're not that type of nerd already, reading Accelerando and googling anything you don't understand will make you one.

The most powerful and new aspect of Accelerando is how well it conveys the bewildering depth of technological change - you understand how Thomas Jefferson would feel in today's society, and wonder if it will happen to you in ten years. That transformation over orders of magnitude of society is something I haven't seen before, and Stross deserves a lot of praise for it. However, Accelerando never gelled as a novel for me; it was written as separate novellas, and the seams show badly at times, in occasional plot disconnects and flat characters.

Hugo-worthy? In another year, Accelerando could certainly have won, but Spin is close to my idea of perfection for a sci-fi novel: one brilliant idea and the joy of discovery, all grounded in believable characters. Accelerando rates A-, Spin the solid A


  • 2006 was apparently a good Hugo year - John Scalzi's Old Man's War was another strong contender. If you ran out of Heinlein novels, and are looking for some methadone, you could do worse.
  • Never, ever read the back covers of science fiction novels - you mostly end up spoiling the surprise. This goes double for Spin.
  • Here's another one where Stross is either serving up world-building in two words, or is just creating word salad:
    The main course - honey-glazed roast long pork with sauteed potatoes a la gratin...

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