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Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

The eternal question is of identity. Who are we, both as individuals and societies? The conventional answer is we are the sum of our experiences. Ignoring the old nature/nurture debate, lives are shaped by the choices we make and the consequences that affect us. An individual can have every conceivable genetic advantage but, if in a moment of drunken stupidity, our potential superman drives and crashes into a tree, every physical and intellectual advantage can be lost. Societies can also crash as selfishness and greed prevail over more altruistic policies to promote the common good. We only have to look around at the current debate over climate change. If everyone improved the efficiency of their homes and modified their behaviour to minimise emissions, the problem would be solved. But no-one wants to change unless they see the need in terms of their own benefit or are coerced into it. We may therefore be sleepwalking towards disaster. For those who like historical parallels, many of the theories to explain the collapse of the Mayan civilisation focus on the failure of agriculture to supply enough food to sustain the population. Yet, as the soil degraded, people kept on producing babies.

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson is the third and presumably last novel following on Spin and Axis. From a structural point of view, it’s elegantly constructed with two narrative threads. One is based in a recognisably “human” future as society adapts to the life offered by the Hypotheticals — aliens who have drastically interfered with Earth’s development for no obvious reason. The second starts some ten thousand years further into the future and then moves forward. Here we see some interesting posthuman speculation as hive-mind societies have emerged, with groups of individuals linking their emotional and intellectual functions into a consensual whole. The boundary lines between an individual and the group mind therefore blur as the mass of “human” thoughts and feelings are mediated through massive computer systems. All this would work well if the zeitgeist for each community remains rational or emotionally balanced. But, with everyone linked together, it’s entirely possible a society might unknowingly slip into irrationality or a single emotional state. Once this happens, there might be wars or a society might simply give up and die.

Robert Charles Wilson communing with nature, hypothetically speaking

Meanwhile, the Hypotheticals remain enigmatic. Both human and posthuman cultures start off no closer to any real understanding of what the aliens are nor what they want out of their interaction with humanity. In the future Vox culture, there’s a religious structure to the group mind’s belief as it runs an analogy to the current Christian belief in an end time when the survivors will be assimilated by the Hypotheticals and move on to a higher state of being. Vox is therefore moving through the worlds, collecting individuals thought to be the key to communicating with the Hypotheticals and ensuring uplift. Two individuals survive from Axis, Turk Findley and Isaac Dvali, and are a link between the human and posthuman times. A third is a personality construct grafted on to the mind of a linked posthuman. Thanks to them, we come to understand much of what has happened and, more importantly, Dvali is finally able to solve the enigma of the Hypotheticals.

In a sense, Vortex matches the Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon in which humanity evolves from individuals through natural selection and genetic engineering to a supermind of individuals linked by telepathy, and we watch as a supernova destroys the Last Men’s refuge. As in all books on a galactic scale, Vortex gives us the chance to watch the end of our universe and so gain a better perspective on how the choices we make shape our future. In this, it flirts with theories of the multiverse and suggests we could, whether consciously or unconsciously, produce different futures.

This explains the reason for the twin-narrative structure. In the “human” future, a young man is brought into a US State facility which assesses mental and physical competence. If the individual is not a danger to him/herself and others, there are community resources to assist this individual cope in the world outside. If there are problems, the individual may be referred on to state facilities for treatment and rehabilitation. This young man is of interest both because of where he has been working and because he’s been writing a future history. This could be a mere science fiction story, or it could be a form of communication from the future. This gives the psychologist Sandra Cole an interesting case to evaluate. Yet, from the outset, it’s obvious this man is a pawn. There’s the unusual interest of the police officer Bose, and why should her manager, Dr Congreve, suddenly reassign this patient to another doctor for evaluation? So begin the twin stories as Sandra and Bose try to protect the young man from some drug suppliers who believe he can identify them, while our future trio struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. The alternating chapters are carefully structured to leave modest cliffhangers which gives the whole a real page-turning boost — Robert Charles Wilson is always highly readable.

So, overall, Vortex is one of the better science fiction novels so far this year. In this, I admit my view is coloured by my ability to remember what happened in the first two volumes. It’s entirely possible this might not read so well as a standalone. I’m therefore in the usual mode of recommending this without reservation if you’ve already read Spin and Axis. Otherwise I suggest you read the aforementioned pair before you come to Vortex. That way, you will know who two of the key players are and what the Hypotheticals have been seen to do.

For reviews of other books by Robert Charles Wilson, see:
Burning Paradise
Julian Comstock.

  1. October 9, 2011 at 12:36 am

    Is Spin worth reading? I’m quite deficient when it comes to post 1990s science fiction… I know the awards like Wilson (or at least nominating him)….

    • October 9, 2011 at 12:51 am

      If Robert Charles Wilson has a hallmark, it’s his ability to tell a good story about people against a background of a big SFnal idea. Spin is one of the best examples of this. Justifiably, it won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2006, telling the story of a family swept up in the incomprehensible events precipitated by aliens later labelled the Hypotheticals. Axis takes us away from Earth to a new planet, a journey made possible by the Hypotheticals. In a way, this brings the big SFnal ideas to the foreground but the story essentially remains centred on the humans. Both are well worth reading.

  2. October 9, 2011 at 2:37 am

    Cool. I prefer generally prefer 50s, 60s, 70s science fiction but I’ve been tempted as of late to reader some later stuff. I mean, I have in the past, but that was 6 or so years ago….

  3. October 9, 2011 at 2:56 am

    Interesting. I grew up reading the early SF as it was published. Now I find most of it very forgettable. The plots were sometimes good but the execution tended to be poor. The big exceptions were Jack Vance, the early Heinlein and Simak, and P K Dick before he got too far into the drug scene. Some of the Van Vogt is OK. Harry Harrison was readable and I was a fan of John Brunner.

    It’s pretty much the same today. Most of the stuff is forgettable but more effort to read because everyone writes books that are too long. You have to play a game and find individual authors you like and then explore. Robert Charles Wilson is worth looking at — he’s good at telling a story. Try Spin. It’s probably his best book. If you like it, read the other two.

  4. October 9, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Hahaha, I was born in the late 80s and hate anything post 80s 😉

    I’m a historian so perhaps it’s the uncovering lost gems that I love so much…. I love social science fiction, disregard hard sci-fi completely (I highly doubt I’ll enjoy Spin — alas), so I naturally gravitate towards the 60s for obvious reasons…

    • October 9, 2011 at 3:03 am

      *hate is too strong of a word — I dislike anything post 80s…. I did enjoy Simmons’ Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion, some of Cherryh’s works — Cyteen and the like, Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (disliked Snow Crash) and can tolerate Gibson if I’m forced…

  5. October 9, 2011 at 3:03 am

    I’m also a fan of John Brunner — Stand on Zanzibar is easily my favorite science fiction book.

    • October 9, 2011 at 3:18 am

      I was a Brunner completist, having firsts of all his works. At one time, I was negotiating with him to publish some of the early Ace doubles in omnibus hardback editions, but he backed away when I offered him to chance to revise the editions. He was very prickly if anyone so much as hinted any of his works could be improved on.

  6. October 9, 2011 at 3:04 am

    If you’re curious I have a pretty substantial review list.


    • October 9, 2011 at 3:21 am

      I have read all those titles, being completist in about half the authors on your list. That’s a good start, though. Keep it up!

  7. October 9, 2011 at 3:22 am

    Haha, these are only the ones I’ve reviewed since I started the blog — I’ve read hundreds and hundreds more….

  8. October 9, 2011 at 3:24 am

    You’ve read Katherine MacLean’s Missing Man? Russ, And Chaos Died? Sydney Van Scyoc’s Assignment Nor’ Dyren? I don’t believe you…. 😉

    • October 9, 2011 at 3:38 am

      I have read several tens of thousands of books in a long life — when I sent off the bulk of the collection for sale a few years back, the weight was slightly more than 50 metric tonnes. Even now, I’m reading three or four books a week with several hundred in the queue. In the good old days when books were a lot shorter, I could read two or three a day. Better still, I can still remember a lot of them.

      • October 9, 2011 at 3:55 am


        Alas, I have a reading intensive job (currently a PhD student in medieval history) so I read only two or three a week at the moment….

  9. October 9, 2011 at 3:26 am

    Or Louis Charbonneau’s Down to Earth? (it’s terrible)…

    • October 9, 2011 at 3:39 am

      Believe me, there are thousands worse than Down to Earth. You just haven’t found them yet.

  10. October 9, 2011 at 3:51 am

    Hehe, yeah, Silverberg’s Master of Life and Death is worse than Down to Earth, and some of Brunner’s early stuff, and Damon Knight’s cringe worthy Beyond the Barrier…

  11. October 9, 2011 at 3:53 am

    You’re right — the list of bad sci-fi is endless….

    • October 9, 2011 at 11:07 am

      Not that I am recommending any of the following, but have you read the series by Mary Gentle, Ash: A Lost History which is alternate medieval military history, or, if you like mysteries, the Brother Cadfael novels by Elizabeth Pargeter? or, since you’re a PhD student, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco? I could go on, but there are a lot of interesting books that exploit medieval history for different literary purposes (and that’s before I start listing the fantasy novels that are medieval in spirit).

  12. October 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I’ve read The Name of the Rose but tend to stay away from medieval inspired works…. I guess if I was a scientist I’d get frustrated with scientific inaccuracy — well, the same thing happens when I read medieval inspired works. Eco is a notable scholar so he tends to get the history right at least!

    I’ve seen all the Brother Cadfael television series episodes — it’s quite good!

  1. May 5, 2014 at 12:25 am

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