It's been years since the last time I read a science fiction novel, and even when I was reading science fiction regularly, I tended toward the lighter entertainments of the genre.
So when a review copy of Robert Charles Wilson's Spin came my way a few weeks ago, I was somewhat surprised to find that it was... well, a novel, about characters and their relationships and how they respond to events, rather than a sixty thousand word "What if?"
Though the "What if?" is pretty cool, from the perspective of someone who doesn't read much science fiction: What if one day Earth were enveloped by some sort of temporal distortion such that, for every second that passed on Earth, 3.7 years passed in the universe at large? So every month as experienced on Earth, the solar system aged about ten million years. And what would happen in forty or fifty years, when the Sun died and took Earth with it, temporal distortion or no?
As a character-driven novel, the real question isn't what happens to mankind as a whole, but what happens to the major characters, how they react to the Spin (the name for whatever it is that happened to Earth) and to each other. That probably makes it a better novel, in terms of its focus and scope.
At the same time, the smaller scope means the novel only incidentally addresses the larger cultural and anthropological questions an end of the world scenario raises, and when it does address them it tends toward superficiality and plot advancement. What makes it a better novel artistically makes it a less important novel culturally.
I am, of course, tuned to look for how religion is treated, but in Spin Wilson is only concerned with how religion directly affects his characters. One of the main characters gets involved in various kooky end-times pseudo-Christian cults, while the rest are either utterly indifferent or actively hostile toward religion. As a result, not a word is written about how non-kooks might have reacted to the Spin.
And again, within the scope of the novel, it makes sense for ordinary, non-plot-advancing religion to be invisible. But again, and even beyond questions of verisimilitude, it makes what Wilson says about humanity in general (rather than the particular characters the novel is mostly concerned with) much less convincing or relevant.
Well, convincing or relevant to us religious people, at least. But suppose he had, for example, written in the Vatican's reaction to the Spin? Would it have been convincing, the sort of thing the Vatican might say in such circumstances? It seems doubtful that anything made up would sound convincing to both those who think the Vatican can say wise things about science and those who think it can't.
And personally, I prefer an author to leave religion out of his book rather than put it in in a dismissive way. (Kooky end-times pseudo-Christian cultists may well really hate this book.) If it's a choice between ignoring religion and turning a novel into a work of apologetics (perhaps for atheism), ignoring religion may well be the way to go.
But no good novel can ignore all religious themes, and of course the end of the world takes on a religious dimension, willy nilly, when it's coming in a few decades rather than a few billion years. Faith -- in God, in science, in others -- is a major theme of Spin, which is good anthropology if not good theology. And in the end, faith is for the most part rewarded. Of course, to say it's "rewarded" is to imply there's Something giving the reward, which may be more than Wilson intends, but there are some things that are true -- such as happy endings -- and what the truth implies can't be false.