26 September 2007

Locus Magazine reviews Robert Charles Wilson

by Gary K. Wolfe

from Locus Magazine, September 2007

Axis, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 978-0-7635-0939-6, $25.95, 304pp, hc) September 2007.

Every once in a while, Hugo Awards seem to make a difference. Even though Robert Charles Wilson's career dates back more than twenty years, and though he'd been on the Hugo best novel ballot for Mysterium in 1994, Darwinia in 1998, and The Chronoliths in 2002, it seems like it's only since he actually won last year for Spin that the consensus has caught up with him — the recognition that he is, and has been for some time, one of the major SF novelists of his generation. Why it has taken a while for this realization to dawn on everyone (although my Canadian friends have been insisting on it for years) is an interesting question, and it may have something to do with matters as simple as foregrounding and backgrounding. Wilson has always been drawn in two directions at once: his concern with plausible, human-level dramas of community, family, and character on the one hand, and his attraction to whomping large-scale SF concepts on the other. Characteristically, Wilson has chosen to foreground the human drama — which makes him among the most accessible of SF novelists for general readers — and in his early work it wasn't unreasonable to compare his work with that of Sturgeon or Simak; his first novel, The Hidden Place, was a small-town coming-of-age tale set during the Depression, and the SF elements were so subdued you could almost get away without noticing them. Similarly, A Bridge of Years began in a rural cabin retreat before revealing itself as a time-travel tale and finally resolving itself into essentially a character study. Wilson's mature period, which we might date from 1994's Mysterium, refines this technique even further, beginning again with a small-town community but raising the ante quite a bit on the gradually revealed SF background — in this case the whole town is transported somehow into an alternate world ruled by a kind of Gnostic religious regime. Darwinia moved into still more radical cosmic perspectives — again, revealed only after the initial setting was established in fairly realistic terms — and both The Chronoliths and Blind Lake (the latter of which returned to the idea of a displaced community) offered what by now had become Wilson's characteristic mainstream values combined with ever more ingenious SF trappings.

Spin, possibly Wilson's best novel, can thus be seen as a realization of what Wilson had been working toward for well over a decade — it was his most fully realized family/relationship novel to date, and at the same time offered his wildest cosmic perspectives to date. What was remarkable was how he kept these elements in balance: the Big Ideas never quite overwhelmed the characters, but by now they'd gotten so big that they couldn't be kept in the background anymore, either. Nor, for that matter, can they quite be contained in one novel, so now we have Wilson's first direct sequel, Axis, which begins some three decades after Spin left off. At the end of that earlier novel, the narrator Tyler Dupree and his wife Diane — whom we had met as childhood friends at the beginning of the novel — were passing through an enormous arch in the Indian Ocean constructed by the same mysterious alien Hypotheticals (so-called because no one has actually seen them) who had isolated the Earth in a kind of time-bubble while billions of years passed on the outside. On the other side of the arch — thanks to a Clarkean alien technology so advanced it might as well be magic — was an entirely new planet called Equatoria, which was to serve as a haven for humans whose own solar system was dying. In real world terms, Equatoria is unimaginable light-years away — the arch is actually a kind of intergalactic International Dateline — and it's a sign of Wilson's perverse brilliance that the only way to travel there is by means of an ordinary ship.

Axis presents a new kind of challenge for Wilson. He characteristically likes to open his novels with familiar, domestic surroundings, but now, for the first time since the comparatively minor Bios, he's already got his characters off on an alien planet, and he knows it's going be a challenge to top the large-scale lifted-veil effects of Spin. So what does he choose to do? He chooses to write another Robert Charles Wilson novel, that's what. In fact, the opening of Axis almost pointedly echoes the opening of Spin: the earlier novel opens with the terrific line "I was twelve, and the twins were thirteen, the night the stars disappeared from the sky," and Axis begins with "In the summer of his twelfth year — the summer the stars began to fall from the sky — the boy Isaac discovered that he could tell east from west with his eyes closed." Again there is an isolated community — the remote desert scientific settlement on Equatoria where Isaac is the only boy — and again there are mysterious meteorological phenomena, in this case a series of spectacular fire-and-ash storms which leave behind bizarrely shaped structures. But that opening line also tells us what's going to be different this time: Isaac's discovery of his hidden and apparently pointless talent is the first of a series of discoveries about himself which will eventually reveal that, in this case, the big revelations (and there are some) will function not as background to Wilson's character study, but as an integral part of it. In other words, that foreground/background issue I mentioned earlier is resolved about as seamlessly as I've seen in a Wilson novel. There are still echoes of Sturgeon here, but now it's the Sturgeon of More Than Human, flavored with a bit of Clarke's Childhood's End as well.

Into Isaac's village comes a mysterious old woman, Sulean Moi, who has undertaken a hard desert journey just to see him. And it's not long before we learn that Sulean herself is being sought by Lise Adams, whose father has disappeared and who suspects Sulean may know something about it. Lise hires freelance pilot Turk Findley to assist her, but meanwhile her ex-husband Brian, who works for a government agency dedicated to tracking down "fourths" — humans whose lives had been artificially extended by a technology borrowed from the advanced Martian civilization in Spin — has also taken an interest in tracking down the mysterious Moi. As a romance develops between Lise and Turk, who are trapped together during the first of the ash-storms, he joins her in her quest and introduces her to an aging village nurse named Diane, just about the only character carried over from Spin and the widow of that novel's narrator. Despite the impressive ash-storms and the revelations about what the alien Hypotheticals are and what they may be up to, most of Axis takes place through these various unfolding relationships — Turk and Lise, Lise and Diane, Isaac and Sulean, Brian and his own conscience. Occasionally Wilson flirts with unfortunate stereotypes — a tough bush pilot named Turk, for heaven's sake, or the cold-hearted scientist Dr. Dvali who runs the desert compound where Isaac is kept virtually a prisoner and treated as an experiment — but for the most part these are Wilson's familiar engaging characters, and each of them plays a crucial role in the next step of the unfolding mystery of the Hypotheticals. Rather than take the expected route of dazzling us with more and bigger billion-year perspectives and alien machines like we saw in Spin, Wilson has chosen depth over expansion, and the result is arguably what a middle novel in a trilogy should be, adding weight and density to the narrative instead of merely offering a place-holding intermezzo for the fireworks to come.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the September 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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