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Friday, June 29, 2007

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, won the 2006 Hugo award for best science-fiction novel. If you want a summary of the plot, go here. I wish to muse on it, not summarize it.

Spin (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2005) is what used to be called hard science fiction. That is, it is about possible future developments that can be plausibly related to current scientific knowledge. There is some physics, or cosmology, and some biology, in the book. However, there are characters, and they are fleshed out, with believable personalities. Some hard science fiction novels, at least some written back when I started reading such literature, many years ago, had cardboard characters.

Another aspect of Spin is the way the narrative is written. The entire book is written from the standpoint of a single protagonist, Tyler Dupree, and covers an entire lifetime (although he isn't dead at the end). But it jumps backwards and forwards in time, which, among other things, allows Wilson to tell the story, but spring some surprises (at least to one reader) as he goes.

My main concern in this post is the way Wilson handles religion, or faith. This topic appears, in some way, in all of Wilson's writing that I have read. There is a strong strain of it in Spin.

There are several Christian cult groups in the book, one in particular. On p. 236, and later in the book, Wilson has this group, and similar ones, looking for fulfillment of what they say is the prophecy of the red heifer, appearing in Israel. Wilson has a character refer to Numbers 19 (verses 1-10). I don't read that passage as prophetic at all, and it describes a ritual which was to have been performed first on the way from Egypt to Israel, rather than in Israel. Wilson also has the character who first mentions the prophecy say that related passages are found in "Matthew and Timothy" (p. 236). I didn't go through all of Matthew, but when I did a quick check of both of the letters to Timothy, I didn't find anything that related. Wilson doesn't spell it out, but I believe that he portraying his fictional cult as having distorted scripture badly (which, of course, cults do).

The protagonist is perceived as having lost his faith:
"You look like a man who has lost his faith," Hakkim once told me.
"Or never had one," I said.
"I don't mean faith in God. Of that you seem to be genuinely innocent. Faith in something else. I don't know what." (p. 273)

One of the members of the cult goes through a crisis of faith. Here are excerpts from an extended conversation with the Dupree, who, as indicated above, and elsewhere in the book, seems to be an atheist, or perhaps an agnostic:

"But I believed in what we were doing. Probably you don't understand that. But it wasn't just the red calf, Tyler. I was certain we'd be raised up imperishable. That in the end we'd be rewarded."
"Rewarded for what?"
"Faith. Perseverance. . . ." (p. 310)

and, later in the same conversation:

"I can't speak for heaven and earth. I refuse to let her die as long as I have a choice."
"I envy you that," Simon said quietly.
"What? What could you possibly envy?"
"Your faith," he said. (p. 311)

Wilson is implying that Tyler Dupree does have some sort of faith, even though he doesn't realize it himself. Jason Lawton, an important character, seems to have faith in science. His father, E. D. Lawton, seems to have faith in power.

What about Wilson's faith? I don't know. But his book, by its main scientific theme, which I won't give away, seems to suggest that it is not in a supernatural God, but in purposeless chance over a long time. The salvation of humanity, in Spin, is not in God, but in intelligence, produced over time by long evolutionary processes.

We all need a Savior, a Big Salvation. Tyler Dupree thinks:
But this, I realized, was the faith that had deserted me. The faith in Big Salvation.
All the brands and flavors of Big Salvation. At the last minute we would devise a technological fix and save ourselves. Or: the Hypotheticals were benevolent beings who would turn the planet into a peaceable kingdom. Or God would rescue us all, or at least the true believers among us. Or. Or. Or. (p. 274)

That Big Salvation is not found in us, or any other aspect of God's creation, but in Himself.

Thanks for reading.


Mirtika said...

I enjoyed this novel hugely, even with the sort of patronizing take on religion (oh, those poor befuddled sillies). I thought the scientific speculation was fascinating, the pace was excellent, and the characterization was really good. If it had been all hard SF without the human components (and their frailties, and their nobilities), I'd have ditched it early on.

There is this sort of benevolent sense that "Well, religion helps some people, but they're weak" thing that bothered me a bit, but it's what I'd expect of a secularist, so I can read and enjoy it. At least it did have a main character with faith. She ends up being the least effective, which is how I imagine secularists view us. Deluded and emotionally needed and ineffectual.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. It is good when secularists acknowledge that religion plays an important role in some people's lives. I hope I'm not expecting too much of such authors.