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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Vortex" by Robert Charles Wilson (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Robert Charles Wilson Website
Order Vortex HERE

INTRODUCTION: Robert Charles Wilson is an US born Canadian writer of speculative fiction who has built over the years an amazing body of work, winning many sff awards, including the 2006 Hugo award for the extraordinary novel Spin.

I have actually followed Mr. Wilson's career across the years, but Spin was such an astounding book that it became an instant classic for me and put R.C. Wilson on the list of authors I read everything on publication. Since Vortex is the final book in a loose trilogy that started with Spin and had Axis as a middle book, I will talk a little about its setup and recurring characters.

The main conceit of the series is that at some point in the near future, mysterious aliens called Hypotheticals surround Earth with a temporal bubble that vastly accelerates its time flow with respect to the rest of the universe, so in several decades subjective on Earth, billions of years pass outside the bubble and the Sun for example is spent, so only the Hypotheticals' "magic" stands between humanity and extinction.

So upheavals galore on Earth - eg all satellites crash and all space based industry disappears overnight, but instead airships and mechanical devices instead of electronic ones take their place and a different industry is born to replace the lost one. But not all is gloom and doom since there are several bonuses - Mars is colonized and due to the time differential the civilization there advances millenniums while on Earth just weeks pass - of course the Hypotheticals shut off Mars with a similar barrier after a while but in between some cool Martian tech with far reaching implications reaches Earth, only of course to be subverted by the powers to be...

Later, a huge hyperspace portal appears in the Indian Ocean and offers access to a sequence of empty planets similar to Earth, of which the immediate neighbor called Equatoria is the setting for Axis.

But Spin is first and foremost a novel about three people and the complicated relationships between them and their friends, families and lovers and that made it a huge success more than the sfnal content which is cool but I have read before.

It is very hard to follow up on a masterpiece like Spin and Axis tried valiantly. While Axis continued the Spin timeline some decades later and a planet away and had a lot of great moments, it had one main flaw in that as a middle book it expanded the universe of the series but offered little resolution.

The other negative was the emotional disconnect since the characters from Spin are either dead or make cameo appearances, while the new characters introduced here, most notably Turk Findley and boy genius Isaac Dvali - or at least that's the intention of his parents/creators since quite unethically they engineered Isaac to try and communicate with the Hypotheticals - do not have the time to fully get our emotional involvement until the cliffhanger climax of the novel. Still I loved Axis and found it a great read due the author's superb narrative skills.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Vortex splits into distinct narratives that are related by a "message in a bottle" device - though in this case the message goes time-reverse - with the full import of everything revealed in a very satisfactory ending.

The protagonists of Axis - Turk Findley and Isaac Dvali - who at the end of that novel are englobed by Hypothetical constructs, go through a 'Time Arch" and appear 10,000 year later when a local cult like polity, the Vox, founded precisely on the base of prophecies of future communion with the Hypotheticals when the resurrected - like Turk and Isaac appear- snatches them and starts a journey to fulfill its fate. Vox recreates a Spin time persona - Allison Pearl - grafted on top on one of their citizens, Freya, trained for birth as liaison with the upcoming resurrected - and the future tale of Turk, Allison/Freya and later Isaac is the main thread of the novel with explanations and all in the end.

Like the sfnal content of Spin and in the spirit of some of RC Wilson recent short fiction I have reviewed here, this a fairly standard sfnal far-future adventure with some surprises and which worked very well with an ending that was very emotional but appropriate. There is also one more narrative twist with the author masterfully switching pov's in the end and that added a little extra too, but what gave Vortex "the extra" Axis missed, was the second story, a very human oriented one of a doctor, a policeman and a patient.

This other tale, back in the after Spin times, maybe a generation later, is superb since here we see RC Wilson at his best as both a storyteller and creator of unforgettable characters who are regular humans dealing with strange situations. This tale of psychiatrist Sandra Cole, policeman Bose and troubled youngster Orin Mather who has been writing a journal purposing to tell the future stories of Turk Findley and Allison Pearl in Vox, 10000 years ahead is awesome and a tour de force.

Vortex alternates between the two timelines and while I read Turk and Allison's adventures with interest, they were a little distant as befits something set in the far future and a strange land; but the immediacy of Sandra, Bose and Orrin's tale added the emotional ingredient that made Spin so memorable and made Vortex (A+/A++) a compelling read and a great series ending. Sf that combines far future sense of wonder with human interest and great characters does not come that often around and I strongly recommend not to miss it in Vortex!


Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

I love the concept to the series :) I'm not a huge sf fan but I may take a gander at these. Thanks for the review :D

Liviu said...

RC Wilson novels are very "human oriented" but also very sfnal which is a rarer combination - there is a lot of "human oriented" sf especially on the more literary part of the spectrum (eg M. Atwood or K. Ishiguro or David Mitchell as famous examples I love) but there the sf is very 50's in many ways - I mean there may be modern tropes like clones, viruses, etc but the sfnal execution is simplistic.

I hope that you will try and like the series and maybe find more sf of interest

Meredith said...

Can you explain what 'sfnal' means? You use it a few times in your review and I'm not picking it up by context.

Liviu said...

Sure, sfnal means the stuff that is essentially futuristic, for example the setup 10k in the future with Vox which is a limbic democracy versus its enemies which are cortical democracies (it's explained what this means, but essentially in Vox all citizens share emotions so Vox itself is a sort of universal conscience for the good or bad this entails - eg when bad things happen to loved ones, Vox soothes you, but if Vox goes insane, everyone dies insane and that's one reason many regard polities like Vox as abominations) or the nature of the Hypotheticals and what they want with humans, why they did what they did etc.

Usually sf novels that are not near future strongly depend on this content and they skim on the human part - eg characters, relationships - unless they are related to the sfnal part.

Contemporary sf is better in this regard so you have less cliches (genius scientist, mad inventor,etc) but still most characters are dependent on the setup

RC Wilson though is very good at I call "human interest" and combines it with pretty good sfnal content too

Anonymous said...

"sfnal", as I understand it, is the adjectival form of the noun "sf" ("science fiction"), and is meant to be an abbreviation of "science fictional". I think it's a rather clumsy construct (doesn't take that many keystrokes to type out "science fictional"), and it just alienates those who aren't as familiar with the genre.

Liviu said...

I think "science fictional" is clumsier and I am rather fond of sfnal; on the other hand I agree with the possibility of confusion for less experienced readers of sf

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