Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: Vortex, by Robert Charles Wilson

[Probably contains some spoilers.]

Vortex is another loosely-tied sequel to the big-sweeping science fiction novels Spin and Axis by Robert Charles Wilson, and much like before, I picked this one up while pretty desperate for a read, and Wilson is a reliable satisfaction. You can follow back to those other reviews, but the short version is that I'd found Spin to strike a near-perfect balance of big, cool sci-fi mystery and sensitive, humanist storytelling, while Axis, although well-conceived, somehow managed to lose a lot of urgency. With Vortex, I'm on the train again, and I made the uncharacteristic move or reading the whole damn thing over the space of a day or two. The novels can't be called a series but they're connected. Although they share a broad plot arc of a deepening puzzle on a celestial scale, each one resolves neatly enough on its own terms. (The titles themselves don't signify a heck of a lot.) It's more as though Wilson writes each one in the same universe, more or less, and enough time passes in between both the events and the publication that the remembered details fuzz up. I think there might be some subtle contradictions in the descriptions of the connected worlds and their makers among the books, even if the general idea remains the same.

And the general idea, I will reiterate, is really well put together for a science fiction conceit. Human society has been visited by some unknown and gigantic technological presence, one that (in Spin) isolates the planet, holding it in a temporal bubble as the universe ages around it. Wilson wisely leaves the how as perplexing as the why. At the end of the first novel, earth finds itself linked to other livable worlds through huge archways, and with Axis, we learn that the makers have some use in sampling and preserving (and swapping at long intervals in time through another series of arches) the information that these oddly fostered societies tend to generate. The "hypotheticals" themselves are an enormous and slow-growing network of tiny self-replicating machines, the sort of devices that short-lived biological civilizations tend to generate at some point in their development, and the von Neumann devices of hundreds or thousands of such worlds have, over impossible eons, grown, merged, and evolved into a system that is symbiotic with the more frenetic societies that rise and create and fall. What's really brilliant about this, and I mentioned it before, is how Wilson imparts on them the function an impersonal and mighty god (and related subplots ensue, not unsympathetically). He gives us a watchmaker that's real, and it's as insensate as an ecology, and we are left to learn, again, what it is to be alone(-ish) and also to be Chosen in a universe that's more complex and wonderful and humane than anyone would have ever guessed. Vortex eventually sees life, the universe, and everything right through to the end, shows us an earth scoured, inadvertantly, by humanity's own efforts, to the stars winking out, to expansion and cooling of space right on through to its impending heat death. And he still gives us to care about the people in it. It's why I love his writing.

Vortex tells two stories simultaneously. One is a mystery set amid interesting times in 21st century Texas, where a state psychiatrist and a cop try to understand why a strange boy is writing unsettling journals well above his intelligence level, narratives that are loaded with information that, despite the gonzo setting, contain elements that relate to contemporary crime activity. It's a frame that is just compelling enough to keep the story moving and the tension up, characters just compelling enough to give a damn about, and which lets things get revealed at just the right pace.

The other half is contained in the journals themselves. It begins on the other side of the temporal gate that erupted at the end of Axis, that also absorbed Turk Findley (among others), who wakes up ten thousand years later to a world that's unrecognizable. Wilson leaves the other holdover character, Isaac Dvali, the child prodigy who's been loaded up with human attempts to interact with the hypotheticals off until near the end. Turk is one of two cobbled-together ambassadors to the reader, and they're both of them compelling ones. (And if Turk is not quite the same Turk in the last novel, and if maybe the problem with the character all along was that he couldn't be any more random, then Wilson gives himself a fine excuse for all of this.) They are relateable person in a new community that's integrated beyond current capabilities, and literally adrift in the next-door world (that's dying), floating on its way to the arch to get to earth (which is dead). Our almost-mundanes are in a good position to observe how all the bizarre new technology doesn't prevent human pettiness, zealotry, visciousness, love or decency. The 31st century technology does eventually offer the characters some tools to confront, and, since there is really nothing there to talk to, finally start to use the hypotheticals as a medium to bring all the threads together.

It takes Isaac to do this, to connect it all, and while he have been strange enough to leave out of most of the story, it's his simple and strong motivations that give us, the readers, the story at all, revised, just a bit, to allow a moment or two of grace.

[Sorry about the continued sparse posting, by the way. It's been a sinister combination of time and motivation. I have some other stuff I want to get to at some point or other.]

No comments: