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SPIN – don’t call it a comeback

August 23, 2011 – 3:35 pm

Last week the World Science Fiction Society announced the Hugo award winners at WorldCon in Reno, NV. I’d like to congratulate local Portlander Mary Robinette Kowal on winning a Hugo for her short story “For Want of a Nail.” I look forward to reading it since so many of my favorite stories and authors have the words “Hugo Award Winner” associated with them.

And that got me thinking about one of my favorite reads in recent years, the 2006 Hugo winner for best novel, Robert Charles Wilson’s SPIN.

For me, the love of science fiction began with comic books, then Star Wars. But that’s generational. When I started reading books I spent a summer with my step-dad’s worn-out 3-volume copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I loved that box-set. A few years later as I grew old enough to watch old reruns of The Twilight Zone I discovered that a lot of the stories Rod Serling used were plucked right out of those pages. And even more years later, after moving up and down the west coast, I hunted down a used copy of the same box set I’d enjoyed as a boy.

At the time a lot of those stories were written it seemed like the science fiction genre was a blend of the fantastic and the scientifically conceivable, with some kind of ignorant access character stumbling through it all. Okay, I guess that’s general enough to still be true today, but the stories changed around the time of the Apollo missions to space. It’s as if seeing a man on the moon (1969) took the creative wind out of the science fiction author’s sails.

Between the mind numbing atrocities of World War II and the bipolar human achievements of the Space Race and the Cold War, something changed in science fiction. The stories I keep finding from that era are more technical, theoretically reasonable, explainable.

That’s it. All of a sudden everything could be explained. The wonder, the awe found in the earlier stories, it was suddenly harder to find. I drifted away from science fiction for a while. I started running with a different crowd, more classics, the Greeks, the Russians. Poetry. And then, when I needed it most, I found that wonder again in SPIN, a science fiction story about character.

SPIN establishes the high concept stuff right up front and then the whole book is just the story of a man and his family and friends living in a world where things are just a little different than they are for you and me. Here it is: one night all the stars disappear. Blink. Just like that. We spend the next fifteen years or so dealing with the results of that night, sometimes learning secrets, but always just living. There’s a ticking-clock, too, so we know it’s all leading up to a desperate attempt.

Oh, and it gets passionate and evocative, and there’s science aplenty. But Robert Charles Wilson doesn’t have to beat you over the head with the conceit, because (A) it’s ambient and (B) it’s not about that, it’s about people. The more I learned about the big idea, the more I read and discovered what was really going on, the more wonder I felt and the harder it was to put this book down.

SPIN will always be the book that brought me back to science fiction.

BLIND LAKE – science fiction review

October 28, 2011 – 4:30 pm

In February 2011 I spent four days on the Oregon coast. My wife and I were hunkered down in a rustic beach-house in the rain, drank wine, stared at the ocean. We had a great time, thank you. We were there for four days and being a slow reader I spent one and a half of those days reading Robert Charles Wilson’s BLIND LAKE from start to finish. I had already read SPIN (as noted here) and his short story collection THE PERSEIDS AND OTHER STORIES, so this wasn’t my first RCW rodeo. In fact, I’ve also read his CHRONOLITHS and MYSTERIUM, and out of these, BLIND LAKE is my favorite.

The story centers around a cast of characters but primary among them is Chris Carmody, a down on his luck science journalist with one last chance to get it right. He is invited to do a story on a cutting-edge federal research installation in northern Minnesota, at the titular Blind Lake. At the end of his first day’s visit, as he’s preparing to go back into town for the night, the gates around the installation unexpectedly close. He’s trapped inside along with everyone else on this side of the perimeter, completely cut off from the outside world.

The rest of the novel shows how the people who live and work (or happen to be stuck) at the Blind Lake installation deal with their strange situation. The purpose of the facility is to use a technology they don’t really understand to observe an alien creature on its own planet far, far away. The science is wonderfully presented by the characters so that I feel I understand it, or that at least I understand how well they understand it.

This plot is terrific and succeeds in putting people first; it’s always about how they’re feeling, how they’re interpreting the world. For all the big things that are going on around them, the real driving force in this story is an insecure bureaucrat named Ray Scutter (love that name!) For the people who know him, who put up with him, who try to like him, Ray serves as a kind of villain. In the plot sense, he motivates some of the story. In a way, this is a provincial Checkovian sci-fi story.

BLIND LAKE is a people story with sci-fi bass-line. It was a great story to read while stuck in my own isolation and one I readily recommend.