July 2005

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Spinning the Big Idea Novel

One of the problems with hard science fiction is that there are few writers who can mesh both the Big Idea (like, say, the terraforming of Mars) with the Character-driven Story (like Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age). Big Idea stories are frequently written by writers who dig the science more than the humans behind it and frequently craft novels that are more about the gee-whiz factor than the exploration of the human condition. Think Robert Sawyer or Robert Reed. Yes, there are characters and, yes, they do things, but these books are more driven by a desire to explore some cool technological artifact and, generally, it’s some sort of artifact that could exist, given the current laws of space and time. The characters are there simply to talk about the Big Idea and its general niftiness.

On the other side of the aisle are the Character-driven writers. Yes, they do explore Big Ideas, but their manifestations are on a smaller scale and focus more on the people who use them. The technology is more like a background tapestry and, frequently, isn’t all that plausible given what we know about the nuts and bolts of the universe. Think Heinlein, with his faster than light travel and exotic aliens. Ditto Iain M. Banks and early John Varley. These worlds are full of lots of little ideas, which are manipulated in order to talk about both imagination and humanity. The science itself can be a little sketchy, but the reader who enjoys stories about people will overlook any plausibility problems in order to be swept along by the text.

Of course, the divide isn’t hard or fast. And the best writers fall into both camps, like Robert Charles Wilson, whose most recent novel Spin is a truly stunning and deeply textured work that is driven by both people and ideas.

The romance copy -- the plot synopsis and quotes that live on the inside flaps and back covers of most books -- might put off both sets of readers, which is a pity because they would then be missing out on some mighty good stuff. The interior flap of the hardback brings up Wilson’s use of the Big Idea, a global blackout that blots out not terrestrial lights but the stars of the entire night sky. The quote on the back cover, from a starred review in Publishers Weekly, talks about the book’s characters and themes, without ever once mentioning the Big Idea. Neither set of words tells you what you really need to know -- if Wilson wrote it, the category is irrelevant. Hard SF geeks will swoon as much as speculative fiction geeks. Nongeeks would enjoy it as well, if the genre weren’t still ghettoized (which is, in my opinion, both a good and bad thing, but is also another argument for another day).

Wilson, in a recent interview with Nick Gevers on the Scifi.com site explains his amalgam of styles:

“I don't expect the events depicted in Chronoliths or Darwinia to come to pass. But they aren't just fantasy premises. They're tickets to an exploration of more comprehensive ideas of human contingency and mutability. This is what Wells contributed to the genre: Unlike the inventions of Jules Verne, Wells's time machine is an unlikely and probably impossible device. But it takes you somewhere real: into a particularized personal experience of the revealed truths of geology and evolution."

Wilson’s strategy is on sharp display in Spin. While the Big Idea is both unlikely and probably impossible, it spins (no pun intended) out a series of other large ideas that are both likely and possible, if the first impossible event came to pass. But that in itself isn’t what sells the story. Wilson’s main characters are actual characters, rather than simple automatons who do what the author forces them to do in order to move the plot. Wilson’s Tyler Dupree and the Lawton twins have a sense of organic solidity to them. You become deeply invested in their development because it feels like something real is at stake. They are unpredictable and fallible, and that makes their journey intriguing.

What helps Wilson develop such solid and engaging worlds is that he personally seems to be fully connected to the world outside of his stories and is able to parse it into coherent and amusing thoughts about why we are the way we are. You can tell that he is a remarkably smart guy who still knows how to interact socially and, in fact, derives great pleasure from it. This informs his fiction and gives it both brains and heart.

One of his musings -- a speech given at Ad Astra 23 -- is collected here and explores everything from commercials to academia to stars. This excerpt about the sounds different sports make gives you a taste of Wilson’s style:

“Even the sounds associated with curling -- something like the end-of-shift cleanup at a tuna packing factory -- are enigmatic. I have nothing to say about curling except to observe that, like the equally gnomic sport of golf, it originated in Scotland. The Scots, apparently, have embarked on some avant-garde project to push the frontiers of what can plausibly be called a "sport" -- they are to athletics what Frank Gehry is to architecture, what James Joyce is to English literature, and what Pablo Picasso is to the concept of bilateral symmetry."

On a personal level, I’ve long resisted Wilson’s charms. I am not a lover of Big Idea books, simply because I am more interested in words and people than physics and technology. I mean, my first degree is in theatre, which doesn’t exactly scream “hard science lover.” While one of my thespian cohorts went on to get a PhD in Environmental Chemistry, she is the exception rather than the rule. Which isn’t to say theatre people don’t know nothin’ ‘bout science, just that were more interested in what people rather than electrons do.

Based simply on grabbing Wilson’s books and reading the romance copy, I avoided plunking down hard-earned cash on his work because it didn’t speak to me. Then his Darwinia showed up on the Hugo nominee list and, given that I was still reading all of the Hugo noms at the time, I picked it up. And, subsequently, swooned. Now with Spin, I have a new name to add to my buy-on-sight list and lengthy back catalog to seek out and enjoy.