Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third book in a trilogy, this is the conclusion of a series which started with one of the better sci-fi books I’ve ever read. So it’s got a tough act to follow. I suppose the task for Vortex was made easier by the trilogy’s middle-child (Axis) being more pedestrian fare. But since I recently read them all one after the other (re-reading the first two in anticipation of the newly arrived third), I think I can see the entire thing as a single work. But, at least at first, I’ll try to talk about Vortex as a thing-unto-itself — as much as I can, anyway, since it really doesn’t stand alone.

One thing I really appreciate about this book is that it brings back a framing story similar to the first one. It’s told as a series of vignettes jumping from the “present” to a far distant future. In doing so, it unravels the story slowly and carefully until it all comes together at the end. Wilson did something very similar in Spin (though the time periods involved were much shorter and the same characters appeared throughout) and I appreciated seeing it again. Axis used a far more conventional linear narrative and I felt that it was more boring because of it. In Vortex, it really strengthens the story and provides a real impetus to keep reading chapter after chapter: a huge win.

Much like he did in Spin, Wilson really captures the essence of his big idea here. He does a great job of communicating the weight of the world in this book: from the abjectly terrifying limbic democracy of Vox to the more slightly more down-to-earth reality of an impending global warming crisis to the fantastic romanticism of a ring of worlds. Vortex makes all of this, even the most imaginary, seem real — and this is worth celebrating.

The story itself doesn’t quite match up to the majesty of the constructed world. And I think, with hindsight, that this is even noticeable in Spin. But it’s more forgivable (and forgettable) there because the story in the first one is smaller: it’s the story of a few people struggling to make sense of incomprehensible events. Instead, continuing a trend begun in Axis, Vortex tries to tell the story of the entire universe. That there are smaller people at the center of the story actually doing things seems almost to be an unfortunate consequence of the fact that it’s hard to write stories about a non-sentient universe.; but I get the feeling that Wilson would have preferred it if the characters hadn’t actually been necessary. By far, the most interesting entity in the story isn’t actually a character. The Hypotheticals were clearly meant to steal the show. But, by doing so, it makes a lot of the action and characterization seem half-hearted at best. And yet, it’s still pretty good.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining. It’s not that the story is bad (it’s certainly not). It’s just that it’s not as good as the larger ideas of the story suggest they should be. It may be instructive to compare Vortex with Niven’s Ringworld, a book where the story largely takes a backseat to the larger ideas of technology. In contrast, Wilson never actually falls into that trap. While his story may be lesser than his ideas, the story is clearly important.

Which I think is all there is to say about the book by itself. It’s very good and I’d recommend reading it, but in order to do that, you should read the first two. And I can recommend those as well. So really, my recommendation is: read the series. Have fun.

Speaking of the series, what do I have to say about it now that it’s concluded? Ultimately, it’s extremely strong start in Spin almost inevitably led to a small bit of disappointment as we found that it was simply impossible for it to conclude as fantastically as it began. As I implied in my Axis review (though I guess I didn’t say it outright), it’s no criticism to say “This book isn’t as good as Spin.” I think that we will look back on Spin as genre-defining. It’s not many authors who can write multiple genre-defining books and it’s no fault of Wilson that he didn’t pull it off with his books after Spin. But, as I said, the disappointment is only “a bit”.

In large part, the disappointment stems from myself. At the end of Spin, I wanted so badly to know the story behind the Hypotheticals: where they came from, what they were doing, and what their business with humanity was. In the end, though, it turns out that the mystery at the end of Spin was at least half the charm. By hinting at the big answers in Axis and fully developing them in Vortex, Wilson performs the equivalent of a magician pulling back the curtain and showing us that there were really two ladies in that sawed-in-half box the entire time. What was magical becomes merely a trick.

It’s not quite the same thing, of course. And it definitely differs in degrees: the “disappointment” of the Vortex conclusion is far less than what stems from learning a magician’s trick. And it’s almost entirely internal and my own fault. After reading Spin I held multiple contradictory ideas about the Hypotheticals: they were mindless automatons, they were intelligent and anthropomorphic automatons, they were gods. All at the same time. And this was all fuel for my imagination.

But clearly, they can’t all be true. Wilson had to pick one (and he picked sensibly). But, if only by virtue of being logically consistent, his pick ended up being far less amazing than what had been fostering in my head over the years since I first read Spin. Perhaps it would have been best to leave the mystery intact.

As for mystery, the end itself reminds me of nothing so much as the true end of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Unfortunately, the Spin series lacked the long narrative buildup necessary to make such an ending satisfying (and, indeed, many readers found King’s ending incredibly unsatisfying). It seemed tacked on an unnecessary and I’m not entirely sure what the author was trying to say with it. My best guess is that Wilson was backed into a corner by the fact that the eventual heat death of the universe precludes long-term happy endings. So he tried to cheat, and I don’t think it ended up being successful.

Ultimately, that’s a nitpick, though. It’s a few pages out of hundreds. The longer work itself stands up; and though the trilogy doesn’t live up to the promise of its first book, it’s still first-rate sci-fi all the way through. Highly recommended all around.

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