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Robert Charles Wilson

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Title: Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 2009

A problem with reading science fiction is that, at least on the surface, many excellent books look like they contain nothing of interest, like they are ruminated versions of tales told a hundred times. Some of these books turn out to be truly excellent (I Am Legend, Oryx and Crake and The Road come to mind), but sadly, others turn out to be just that, a well-known concept or setting used again with no added spice and no added flavour. The only thing that it stirs within me is the question whether or not  I should continue reading so much in the genre.

This is what Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is to me. It’s set in a low-tech, post-apocalyptic America where political intrigues has forced Julian Comstock, the nephew of the incumbent president, to hide out in the countryside. He there encounters Adam, the narrator, and they become good friends and experience lots of adventures together; being forcefully drafted into the army is only the beginning of their travails. The events of the story are interesting, but very few compared to the number of pages (over 400). It’s a solid setting, but I require more than that.

The novel is separated into a number of parts, and after reading the first one, I felt moderately excited. The writing style was solid and the action was good. However, everything faded away after the first part, and the remaining pages (perhaps two thirds) felt like a very, very long epilogue. That’s not good. I will go as far as to say that I think this book is outright bad. There are interesting bits, but they are few and far between.

Which is a pity, because I know that Wilson can write better books (see Spin, for instance). He has a style which might be good if he only used it to write more compelling stories (he usually gets the characters right). This novel is too long by far, and it’s also the worst I’ve read so far of the Hugo-Award nominees this year. Now only Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente remains before I can tell you which book should win the award. Reading Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America has at least made sure that I have one book less to take into consideration later.

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Title: Spin
Author:
Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 2005

Being awarded the Hugo Award for best novel of 2005, I was excited to start reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Science fiction is a genre that moves and develops just as anything else human, and therefore, modern science fiction differs much from what I am used to, having read mostly old stuff from the sixties and seventies. Spin sets out magnificently with a simple premise: one night, all the heavenly bodies visible from the surface of the Earth disappears. All stars wink out simultaneously, the moon vanishes and all artificial satellites come crashing down.

Gradually, it becomes apparent that the world is put into the Spin, as it is called, a sort of membrane which shields the earth from space and time. Only a modulated sun penetrates the Spin, and inside the barrier, time is almost standing still. This enables the author to incorporate fairly original ideas into the framework of the novel, which constitutes at least half of the snails I am awarding it.

What is happening? Why is it happening? Who is responsible? These are all questions posed by the novels three main characters throughout the entirety of the novel. They are three teenagers who happen to be outdoors under the stars the night the earth is put into the Spin. They are all profoundly affected by the momentous incident, but in divergent ways. Tyler, the most important of the characters and the narrator, is mostly a spectator, being more affected by other people’s responses than by any genuine conviction of his own. The other two main characters, the twins Diane and Jason, represent two widely different approaches to the unknown and frightening phenomenon of the Spin. Diane resorts to religious notions of salvation and Armageddon, whereas Jason’s approach is purely scientific as he dedicates his life to a scrutiny of the Spin.

As the novel proceeds, my high spirits inexorably falters, only to flare up briefly at the very end of the novel. Robert Charles Wilson does an excellent job in exploring the consequences of his Spin incident, and he does it in a way which is connected with deeply human emotions not in any way limited to such supernatural events as the focus of this novel. Also, Tyler’s relationship to the twins, his love for Diane and his admiration for Jason, are complicated and feel genuine. It is carefully narrated and brings about real feeling for the characters. In other words, I get to know them and care what happens to them.

The drawback is that the novel is way too long. There are chinks of light in the otherwise fairly slow narration, but they are few and far between. This is really a pity, because otherwise Wilson seems to be a competent writer, able to sustain thrill and wonder, only that is sadly impossible when so little happens on the 500 pages of the novel. The question I asked my self over and over as I read Spin, was: Is the ending worth waiting for? It had better be, because otherwise this is a waste of time.

Fortunately, the end is worth waiting for, which makes the book more that just worthwhile. However, I feel I cannot give it more than three and a half snails for reasons already mentioned. On the other hand, I have no difficulties understanding why many consider it the best science fiction novel published in 2005, but being sensitive to excessively long novels, I am not among their numbers.

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