Like a lot of people in SF/ Fantasy circles, I stayed up late reading last night. Unlike most of those people, though, what I was reading was not A Dance with Dragons from George R. R. Martin, but Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson, the sequel to Spin and Axis, concluding a series that he said in 2007 he was “trying very hard not to think of as the Spin Cycle.”
Like Axis was to Spin this is a somewhat indirect sequel, and it’s in a very different style than the previous volumes. Where the earlier books closely followed a small number of protagonists through a single series of events, Vortex unfolds in two parallel plotlines: one set just few years after the events of Spin involving Sandra Cole, a doctor at a state mental health facility in Houston, and Jefferson Bose, a police officer who brings her an unusual patient; and a second plot involving Turk Findley, a bush pilot who was caught up in the events of Axis, and now finds himself revived ten thousand years in the future, plucked out of the desert by Vox, a troubled floating archipelago with a collective intelligence driven by a religious mission to Earth. Findley is accompanied by a woman from Vox who has adopted the personality of Allison Pearl, a woman from Findley’s own time (the personality was reconstructed to help Findley adjust to the distant future). Their adventures on the now uninhabitable Earth of the distant future are related within the earlier narrative through notebooks written by Sandra and Bose’s mysterious patient, a young man named Orrin Mather, who doesn’t seem bright enough to concoct the story on his own, but is receiving it via unknown means.
This is a more complicated structure than in the past, and the larger span and set of characters involved rob the plots of a little of their immediacy. Wilson is still doing his trademark “personal stories against the backdrop of cosmic events” thing, though, as even while reading of the ultimate death of the Earth, Sandra and Turk are mostly concerned with their own lives, histories, and relationships. And the book lacks nothing in the area of gee-whiz inventiveness– the “limbic democracy” of Vox is novel and genuinely creepy, and the scenes set on the dying Earth are as cool as anything else in the series.
Of course, as the concluding volume of the series, Vortex needs to pony up some answers regarding the Hypotheticals, the unimaginably powerful aliens who set the whole thing in motion by wrapping the Earth in a time distortion and flinging it billions of years into the future. Their purposes have been completely opaque for the previous two books, though they have obsessed many of the secondary characters (as they should).
The answer comes via a coda of sorts, provided by another surviving character from Axis, who also explains how the narrative in question came to be in Orrin Mather’s head in the first place. The manner in which the answers are provided is a little clumsy (it’s very directly told to the reader, which feels a little odd after so many pages of subtle and indirect incluing), but the answers themselves are as good as you could possibly hope for in a series of this magnitude. The ultimate nature and purpose of the Hypotheticals is both unexpected and perfectly sensible, in a Peter Watts sort of way (if Watts could write anything in this vein that wasn’t absurdly overwrought).
While this doesn’t pack the punch of Spin, which deservedly won the Hugo back in 2006, all in all it’s a satisfying conclusion to the series. Given how often this sort of grandly cosmic series goes completely off the rails at the end, that’s no small achievement. It’s well worth reading if you’ve already read the other two. And if you haven’t read the other two, do yourself a favor and go get Spin at once.