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In An Absorbing 'Vortex,' The Future Is Alien

In Robert Charles Wilson's Hugo Award-winning 2005 novel Spin, mysterious beings, for reasons of their own, encase the Earth in a temporal bubble. With every year that passes on Earth, 100 million years pass in the surrounding universe, and by novel's end, the sun has swollen in the sky. Were it not for the alien membrane, the oceans would boil and all life on the planet would be eradicated. Meanwhile, for reasons humanity can only guess at, an enormous "stargate" appears in the waters of the Indian Ocean, allowing the people of Earth to travel to a series of planets — a "Ring of Worlds" connected by their own interstellar gates.

Wilson continued the story in 2007's Axis, which finds humanity beginning to colonize the world "next-door," stripping its natural resources as they learn more about the impossibly advanced alien presence they call the Hypotheticals.

Two characters from Axis cross over into Vortex, Wilson's third (and, he says, final) novel in the series. The identity of one of them is best left a surprise, but the other, Turk Findley, is much changed from when we saw him last. Rather, he's the same, but the world around him has literally and radically changed: Findley awakens in the middle of a desert 10,000 years in the future, after mankind has populated the Ring of Worlds and left the Earth behind. Rescued by the denizens of Vox, a sea vessel the size of a small continent, Findley discovers that his arrival on Vox has been prophesied for generations.

Robert Charles Wilson is also the author of <em>Spin </em>and <em>Axis</em>.
Robert Di Maio /
Robert Charles Wilson is also the author of Spin and Axis.

A parallel storyline set 10,000 years in the past (our near-future) follows a Texas psychiatrist who finds herself growing increasingly concerned about an unstable young man brought in for evaluation, whose journals are filled with wild tales of a distant future, featuring a floating ship of fanatics determined to meet the Hypotheticals with the help of a man with the unusual name of ... Turk Findley.

Wilson delights in exploring the long-term (really, really long-term) ramifications of first contact, but leavens these quieter, more contemplative passages with regular jolts of breakneck action. He's confident enough in his gifts as a writer to merely assert, and not insist upon, the incredible events he's describing, which is, of course, the key to making them seem absolutely credible. Once again, he places us in a world unlike and yet very like our own, a world that has reconciled itself to the fact that aliens exist and that we are their playthings, but is still struggling with the knowledge that these aliens remain maddeningly uncommunicative, even indifferent. In Vortex, as in Spin and Axis, this set of conditions irrevocably alters the warp and woof of human life — emotionally, culturally, ecologically and philosophically.

Wilson shows us these changes, but not as expositional abstractions, the way other writers might. He isn't interested in the view from 30,000 feet; throughout the novel he fixes his gaze on the level of human interactions, allowing us to feel the presence of the Hypotheticals, to witness how the dull, unignorable fact of them has changed who we are.

Wilson proves especially nimble with small, unfussy moments and character beats — a lunch meeting morphs, subtly, into a first date; a fleeting facial expression provides a crucial clue; a previously hiss-worthy villain reveals an entirely understandable motivation.

The novel closes with a jarring narrative shift — a sudden zoom out to 30,000 feet, and then much, much wider, to encompass the whole of this universe, and others besides. It's a bold move, done to allow long-withheld information to come to light, for answers to be given. It satisfies the reader's curiosity, yes, but it feels exactly like the deus ex machina info dump it is.

You don't need to have read the first two novels in the series to understand and enjoy Vortex, but if you have, that closing chapter will land on you especially hard; it's Wilson's final, bittersweet farewell to a soaring science-fiction conceit that has provided his readers with so many small, thoughtful — and compellingly human — pleasures.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.