Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson

Axis is the sequel to Spin, which I (much more succinctly than usual) enjoyed. A worthy followup I suppose, but I the enjoyment this time around was somewhat less. (Spin was well-received and won some awards, and maybe Wilson worked fast to sell a few books while his brand was hot.) I found the characters likeable, but not especially compelling. Or rather, I found that the intersting people were the ones who spent most of the novel offscreen while protagonist Lise Adams, in her effort to find out about the disappearance of her father, gets turned into too many expository circles for the purposes info-dumping. Wilson does a lot of telling of the background, stuff which, in other novels I remember, he was decent enough to get into a story of discovery or else just remain decently unanswered. It might be because this version has a substantial backstory that it needs to submit to the reader, in order to get to the questions of What's Really Happening down there with the deep magic.

He gave himself a lot of good stuff to work with. There's a sudden injection of the world into a universe a couple billion years older, and populated a bit more completely by a thin, slowly expanding skein of self-replicating hardware. There's the big puzzle of its baffling, disconnected attention to human society. There's humanity's brash attempts to understand it, a sort of self-exiled biochemical Manhattan project with human subjects. There's the boy Isaac (said subject) and Sulean Moi, an unwelcome observer in the compound getting on as outcasts' outcasts. There's competing ideas of human anthropological development in different circumstances. The polyglot colonial landscape that set the detective and chase scenes is well-conceived too, but, while not especially horrible, that particular plot was only just enough to keep the pages turning until the last quarter of the book, where the characters finally come to face the strangeness. I could have done with more Sulean and Isaac, more evidence of crazed obsession among the true believers. More internal conflict needed here please, and less 'splainin.

And while I liked the large questions that Wilson plays with, a little bit more philosophical meandering on the ideas wouldn't have upset me too much either. I mean, he's basically, and later explicitly, offered a plausible--on a science-fiction level--conception of what a powerful and indifferent god might actually look like. And it's just a damn cool idea: a universe that's full of designed machines that (very slowly, and with the aid of some fourth-dimensional physics without which they couldn't cover much volume (these don't even get a handwave, which is just as well)) reproduce and expand and communicate with each other among the cold vast reaches of space. Is it evolutionary and insensate, the characters ask, or is it thinking out there, mimicking meat heads on an impossible scale? Does it live and die too, is it finite? The manifestations of the big celestial mind, the behavior of its "cells", are pretty cool too, machine-like, life-like, weird, and pretty innovative when seen from the ground. It's use for civilization, we learn, is to grow itself. Biological societies at a certain state of development will eventually launch hardware into the void, and when they encounter evidence of that network, will want to swap collected information on that scale too. Maybe, like our jelly life, the cosmic mind is out to create pockets of information in eternal defiance of the second law.

It's likely that many of Wilson's novels (well, that I've read) could get retconned back into this same universe. The themes presented here are definitely his usual schtick, which I've always liked. The couple requisite moments of sentimentality are not forgotten, finding compassion in that weird juxtaposition of the cosmic against the human.


Michael said...

2 different sci-fi books I recently finished, Cradle by Arthur Clarke, and Sphere by Michael Crichton. Both underwater, both involved "Contact" with an advanced civilization, and both left me feeling completely underwhelmed Sphere (which my sister tells me became a movie) had me turning pages like a madman until the very end at which point I felt like a great idea for a plot had been wasted. Cradle was a much slower read, which I normally don't mind except when it's another letdown ending. Tricky business. Easy to figure out fancy ways to explain how we've suddenly been visited by space and or time travelers. Not so easy to write about how we deal with it I guess.

Aaron said...

So if Spin was given an A+, what grade would you give Axis?

Keifus said...

Probably a B, although I'm judging less liberally than I was five years ago. I thought Spin was a very good science fiction novel anyway.

What I like about this author is that the endings--the big reveals, the confrontation of the human with the cosmic--how we deal with it (or fail to)--are done very well and can be quite moving. He writes interesting villains, and can move a plot along competently enough, but I usually wish I had more reason to care about the main characters.