In Other News, Spin Won The Best Novel Hugo This Year

As long as we’re all going to do the “science fiction writers outraged on behalf of other science fiction writers” thing, allow me to say, briefly, that one of the worst things about the recent contrempts regarding a certain science fiction writer being a public jackass at the Hugo ceremony is that it’s taken the spotlight off the person who ought still be in the spotlight, namely, Robert Charles Wilson, whose Hugo win for Spin was both well-deserved and (in my opinion) overdue, and who as a writer and notable SF figure deserves as much praise as a certain other SF writer is currently collecting scorn and outrage.

I don’t want to dissuade those of you who are on the warpath against this certain other SF writer from marching forward; do as you will. But inasmuch as the SF fan mass mind has picked Spin and Robert Charles Wilson as its public face for the next year, and rightly so, won’t you consider taking a least a tenth of the time and blog space you’ve devoted to smacking around this other fellow to noting to your friends, SF fans and non-SF fans alike, the excellent qualities of this most recent Hugo-winning novel and the man who wrote it? Does Spin not represent the thoughtful, intelligent, optimistically human-centered sort of book that we ought to be celebrating, and pressing into the hands of people who don’t think there’s anything about SF they would like? Is this not the right book and the right author, right now? Is it not worth talking about what this book’s ascent into Hugo-winning status says about where our community is today?

To my mind, Spin is the big story of the 64th Worldcon, and I wish we were spending just a little bit more time celebrating it and its author. I’m not criticizing people for talking up that other thing — it’s worth talking about. But Spin is certainly worth talking about more than we have so far. It’s the Hugo winner, and it deserves more and better comment than I’ve seen it getting to date. Robert Charles Wilson, so far as I know, has been nothing but gracious and happily dazed regarding his award, and I suspect hasn’t even thought to complain, because why would he — he just won the Hugo. But as I said, as long as we’re going to be outraged on behalf of other SF writers, allow me to be, if not outraged, at least more than a little annoyed on his behalf. I’d like some more attention focused on his accomplishment, please.

43 Comments on “In Other News, Spin Won The Best Novel Hugo This Year”

  1. Very well put. I caught Wilson and Sawyer on their book tour and was lucky enough to get a signed copy of Spin. It also sports a caricature self-portrait Wilson drew; he’s an artist is more than one way.

  2. (which makes me feel like a big poopoo head for being the only person in the world who actually was not all that thrilled with the book…sorry! don’t hate me for this!)

  3. Poopoo head!

    It’s perfectly fine not to like the book, of course. But it’s still worth noting what its win means, and whether one thinks it’s a positive or negative for SF in general. This should be a conversation piece.

  4. Good work, John. The behavior of H.E. who must not be named is nothing new. RCW’s well-deserved award is news. I was about halfway through Spin, quite blown away, and I remember thinking: I’, only halfway through this book? Sweet!!”

    I, too, was fortunate enough to catch RCW on the “Rob & Bob” tour with Sawyer last year (if you would like to see photos, click on my name above), and got my copy of Spin signed, complete with the self-caricature, along with many of his other books, e.g. Blind Lake, Mysterium and The Chronoliths, all of which I highly recommmend as well.

  5. No, I am happy for Robert’s win, and I am more than a little upset about the fact that H.E. once again managed to make it all about HIM.

    But as far as SPIN…I guess I felt it was just very eloquent SF naval-gazing without a point of any sort…and I didn’t feel the characters at all. Which made me sad, because I wanted very much to care about at least one of them.

    But I will give his next book a chance, nonetheless. :-)

  6. Darwinia and Blind Lake are great too. The distinctly non-sf appreciatin’ books editor of our local paper spent much of the spring waxing enthusiastic over SPIN in her online columns.

    “Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere.” What a great opening line.

  7. Good point, John. I read this when it first came out and I’ve been pressing it into people’s hands ever since about page 100.

  8. But it’s still worth noting what its win means, and whether one thinks it’s a positive or negative for SF in general. This should be a conversation piece.

    That’s a very interesting perspective. How many times can you think of where a work which won a Hugo could be regarded as a negative for SF? Any examples?

  9. Andrew:

    I think a number of people thought JK Rowling’s Hugo win in 2001 was a negative for SF/F, although (without disparaging the other nominees that year) I didn’t see it as a problem, personally.

  10. Well, that probably a good example of one that many people would disagree with. I wasn’t there for it, and don’t really remember the discussions as there were.

    If you don’t mind my bringing this thread off topic a bit, what would other people think of as examples, not of works, but of elements or aspects that would make a work’s receiving a Hugo to be a bad thing for SF?

  11. I’m pleased to note that I was on the jury that nominated SPIN for the Sunburst as well. $1000 prize and a lovely medallion. I of course can’t say who wins, but it’s sure as hell a worthy book.


  12. I’m seriously bummed that I missed both the Hugo Awards and RCW’s signing at Worldcon (had to skip out ’cause of a wedding that I was officiating…if I’d only know how much trouble that Universal Life Church online ordination would cause me…). It was a well-deserved honor for an excellent book that really made me glad and proud to read and write science fiction. I just hope he can pull it off again with Axis (fingers and toes crossed).

  13. Although Spin was interesting, it left me a bit cold. For me, your book was more entertaining. I still haven’t finished all the nominees, and am hopeful about Accelerando (one of the next books on my TBR pile).

  14. I was very impressed by SPIN and definitely found it to be a Hugo-worthy book. I’m happy it won.

    But the most momentous award was, I believe, the one for Best Editor.

  15. I very much agree (as you know from our previous discussions!) that the award for Spin was very well deserved. I certainly put it top of my list.

    I’m not so sure that the award to Wilson was overdue. It seemed to me that Spin combined and synthesised all the good points of his earlier books without at the same time being infected by their weaknesses. It is a better book than the others, and deservedly has received greater honours.

    I’ve been writing and reading a lot recently about writers who did a few brilliant books at the start of their careers and were unable to reproduce the quality after they were 30. It’s cheering to see that the opposite can also happen, someone whose books get better and better and who can achieve that level of quality through experience combined with inspiration, rather than just inspiration.

  16. Nicholas wrote:

    “I’ve been writing and reading a lot recently about writers who did a few brilliant books at the start of their careers and were unable to reproduce the quality after they were 30. It’s cheering to see that the opposite can also happen, someone whose books get better and better and who can achieve that level of quality through experience combined with inspiration, rather than just inspiration.”

    Since my first novel wasn’t published until I was 36, I certainly do hope writers can mature and improve past 30 (or 40, or 50).

  17. [Note: The is comment contains lots of Spin spoilers]

    La Gringa: You’re not the only one in the world. I enjoyed the book, but I had some serious reservations — the fact that (SPOILER) everything the characters did seemed to be orthoganal to the main problem, for one thing, and that the solution (when it came) felt like a deus et machina(s). I think it’s easy to say “Oh, it’s not a book about solving things, it’s a book about finding things out,” but I don’t think that excuses it; first, because the primary problem/source of tension was the technological obstacle presented, and second, because the pressure to find things out didn’t feel like one of the driving factors here. Driving a novel off of scientific curiosity and the need to work things out can be done, and I enjoy those books — Connie Willis works with that sort of tension, which I love — but I didn’t get the impression that SPIN was doing that. (END SPOILER)

    My other big stumbling point was the fact that the teenage versions of the characters at the beginning of the book felt like they were teenagers as viewed by adults, rather than as real teenagers, who just see themselves as, y’know, human beings. (Wilson is not the only adult-marketed SF where I’ve noticed this. I very rarely see it in YA SF, because for obvious reasons it wouldn’t sell there. This could be a deliberate effect on the part of adult SF writers, although I rather hope not.)

    I know a lot of people out there (ok, most people in the field) were absolutely blown away by this book, so I’m curious. What about the book was it that blew you away? The language, the characters, the plot, the science, the [fill in blank here]? I’m wondering what it is I’m not getting here. (I don’t get Seinfeld, either, so clearly there are some big gaps in my understanding.)

    From reading it, my guess was that the blown-away factor centered on the novel’s use of time, and the fact that it got to take the human scale into geologic time and give people a look at that. Which would explain my blind spot; I’m a geologist, so geologic time isn’t mind-blowing for me. And that understanding also made the book much more frustrating (SPOILER) when the geologic time became more-or-less meaningless, and the gate came in and solved the big problems and gave people all the time in the universe.(/SPOILER)

  18. Also, there was that nice young man who won himself a tiara and brand-new cheeseboard at the same award ceremony!

  19. My other big stumbling point was the fact that the teenage versions of the characters at the beginning of the book felt like they were teenagers as viewed by adults, rather than as real teenagers, who just see themselves as, y’know, human beings.

    But they are teenagers as seen by adults. Or, rather, by one particular adult, who is relating the story years later.

    For the most part, the stuff you complain about is the stuff that I liked about the book. Yes, the characters’ actions are largely orthogonal to the Big Events of the alien McGuffin. I think that’s great, because it’s real. That’s what people do, after all– they’re mostly too busy getting on with their lives to notice the end of the world.

    Yes, the teenagers at the beginning have a sort of idealized feel to them. That’s because the story is being told through the perception of the narrator as an adult. I think Wilson absolutely nails that voice.

    What I like about Spin is that it manages to combine both a top-notch SF conceit and first-rate realistic characters. Usually you get one or the other, but not both.

  20. That the characters’ actions were orthogonal to the SF conceit reminded me very much of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s novels; often they’ll have some titanic awe-inspiring process remodeling the world in the background while most of the characters sit around getting hammered, trading inaccurate gossip about what’s going on and weeping about their disintegrating marriages. The people in Spin were practically action heroes compared to that. I wouldn’t like it if every SF novel were like this, but some of it is good once in a while.

  21. Spin has been in my Amazon “maybe” list for a while now… this seals the deal and I’ll be adding it to my next order! Congrats to Mr. Wilson on this win.

  22. I immediately said “What? A book defeated Accelerando for the Hugo? How is this possible?” and rushed right out and bought Spin. It is giving me what I want with _precision_ _guided_ _targeting_. All due respect to La Gringa, the bookshelves are clotted with soap opera light reading full of characters you can care about. I’m sick to death of it, and I’d give up fiction and go back to reading WIRED and Popular Mechanics instead, were it not for Charlie Stross, Robert Charles Wilson, Vernor Vinge, Cory Doctorow, and most of all Greg Egan.

    In an interview with a blogger concerning his book signing in Second Life, Cory Doctorow said the following:

    “Well, the most important moment I had in writing instruction was while I was at the Clarion workshop in 1992. My instructor, James Patrick Kelly, listened to my fellow students praising a story I’d written, and when they were done, he said, ‘Cory Doctorow, you are an a**hole. You’ve managed to write a completely vacuous piece utterly devoid of any emotional oomph, but with enough clever that it’s convinced these people that it has merit.’ He told me that I needed to learn to sit down at the keyboard and open a vein.”

    I say, _screw_ that! That’s not what I loved about “Jury Service” or “Appeals Court” by Doctorow and Stross, where they played to their strengths. James Patrick Kelly is usually a brilliant SF writer, but have you read his “Dancing With The Chairs”, or “The Ice Is Singing”? I got to the end thinking what, that’s it? Nothing but the same old people having the same old emotions they’ve had in literature since the invention of the alphabet, with a vaguely Twilight-Zone window dressing. I don’t know who reads those or why they’re written. It’s got it’s place I guess, but there’s no shortage of it on SF bookshelves. There is not enough candy with a crunchy technological coating and a chewy philosophical center!

  23. I’m re-reading Spin for the first time since it was delivered. (Since Teresa was its actual editor, I have the luxury of not having to have read it multiple times.) I’m struck by the fact that, like your books, it’s a work of entry-level SF–science fiction that makes itself accessible even to readers who haven’t spent their lives reading SF. And it does so while pulling off effects of tremendous skiffy sweep and moment.

  24. PNH:

    Re: Entry-level: I quite agree — and it’s proof that entry-level does not equal appallingly simplistic, which I suspect some people think it might.

  25. Chad said: But they are teenagers as seen by adults.

    See, I do get it for the POV character, because memory is unreliable, people like to present the best versions of themselves, etc. But I still wasn’t totally sold on his versions of the other two teenagers present, or on how they related to the adults. (I’m sure at least part of my reaction here is due to the fact that I follow YA SF pretty closely, and teenagers as presented in YA often bear little resemblance to teenagers as presented in general SF. I’m not sure how much resemblance either version bears to RL teenagers, but YA has to market to RL teens and therefore I tend to go with that version.)

    I feel like I should mention that I’m not trying to tear the book down, stop other people from enjoying it, etc, etc. I enjoyed reading it. I’ve recommended it to people. I didn’t get the gosh-wow-charge out of it that most people did, but everyone has blind spots, and SPIN must be in one of mine. Just the fact that I’m still trying to figure out *why* some aspects didn’t work for me puts it above easily 90% of the SF I’ve read this year.

    [Spoilers follow.]

    Matt McIrvin’s point is a good one, but — well, the orthagonality still bugs me. Remember the Babylon 5 episode told from the POV of two of the station’s janitors? The whole episode was the janitors pretty much just watching things happen and complaining about their lunchmeat. The janitors didn’t solve anything, and it was still a great episode. But the difference between that episode and SPIN is that the janitors weren’t the ones trying to solve the problem.

  26. Everyone in this thread has said most of the things I wanted to say about Spin, in particular Patrick’s comment about Spin being a work of entry-level sf. More than that, it’s both a work of entry-level sf, and a work that a jaded read-everything, seen-it-all sf fan (such as me) can love.

    The central gimmick of Spin is a cliche. It’s a story of god-like alien beings (or maybe it really is God, or gods) coming to Earth and working a miracle. Arthur C. Clarke drank did that a few times. Greg Egan did a whole novel, not too long ago, with the same conceit: God-like aliens put an shell around the whole Earth. Nothing new here, folks.

    And yet Wilson makes it new by doing a couple of things: One is by introducing the idea of having the Earth speeded up so that human beings can experience (as G. Jules notes) geological time. Actually, no, that’s not quite right — it’s not geological time, it’s astronomical time. Another new trick is that the shell isn’t impenetrable, so people and machines can pass through it and interact with the outside universe.

    Chad Orzel nails another brilliant thing about the novel: “Yes, the characters’ actions are largely orthogonal to the Big Events of the alien McGuffin. I think that’s great, because it’s real. That’s what people do, after all– they’re mostly too busy getting on with their lives to notice the end of the world.”

    The cataclysmic event of Spin — Earth being encased in a shell — changes the lives of every human being on Earth, but it takes years and decades for its effect to be felt, which is how the world works. Even on Sept. 12, 2001, most people got up, went to work, and otherwise lived a day pretty much the same as the day they lived on Sept. 10 of that year.

    P.S. I notice that you’re comments preview now includes paragraph breaks. Thanks, Scalzi! You da man!

  27. Damn. I’m gonna have to pick this up. I’ve been skating by it on my way through the local independent bookstore – fie on thee who goes to Amazon for anything but the hardest to find books – and now I will have to get it. Bugger.

    Actually, I can’t wait to read it!!!

  28. Damned straight. I was so damned happy that it won (with no dispresect intended to OMW or Accelerando, both of which I read and enjoyed).

    Unlike a lot of other people here, I also found it to be a great novel about characters. In fact, if they hadn’t felt real and come across as interesting, I can’t imagine having made the effort to finish the book.

  29. Personally, I’d have been a lot happier if OMW or Accelerando had won (I hadn’t read the other two, btw). Spin was well written, as much of RCW’s work has been, and the story is well structured, good characters… but it’s like the soft-core version of technoporn: there’s all the trappings of science fiction, all the strange and bizarre happenings, but the how and why — the money shot, if you will — is when the camera turns away and all you get is elbows and gasping faces.

    OMW certainly doesn’t explain every mystery, but the mysteries are why we want to read about the characters. Accelerando’s got more fun per page than most of the books I’ve read in my life (but suffers a bit from its episode structure, but not as much as “The Carpet Makers” which I read recently — still a stellar piece of work too).

    So… is my problem that Spin isn’t escapist? That it isn’t technologically purient? Yeah. I’d say so. I read plenty of non-technoporn SF (CJ Cherry, Connie Willis, Maureen McHugh… hmm trying to think of another dude), but if it’s going to have a technoporn plot, it had better deliver on the promises.

    Not to mention the great big gaping plot hole *(spoiler)* — if the outside world is moving fast, then sending people out of the bubble to drop resources in, communication with Mars, etc., would seem instantaneous, and they’d learn a lot more about the universe outside. Why not leave? Nobody comes up with a good reason.

  30. See, I had a hard time caring enough about the characters to finish. I kept thinking there would be more “there” there. Someone earlier mentioned that it left them feeling cold; I suppose that’s the best way to describe it. I just didn’t FEEL anything after I read it. It felt disposable, and that didn’t seem right.

    I have to agree with Joel: There is never a reasonable explanation given for the very central plot device of the story.

    Not to say it isn’t a well-written book. I just felt that there were several others that were far stronger contenders.

    But I think John’s main point was this: all this talk of Old Man Toad groping Connie’s boob has inadvertently taken away from the fact that Spin DID WIN a major award, and we should be spending just as much time discussing that. If we let onlythe negative aspects of what happend at the con dominate the blog talk, we’re doing Mr. Wilson a real disservice.

  31. I really liked Spin and was hoping it would win (though Old Man’s War was very good). It was weird because I didn’t like Darwinia very much at all, I really thing RCW has grown as a writer. Also as a Canadian I loved all the little references to Canada. Didn’t notice? That’s because you’re not Canadian :)

  32. If/when I see it in one of the bookshops I go to, I will definetely look at it, but I’m very reluctant to buy books without having had a chance of thumbing through them and getting an impression of whether I’m likely to like it or not. It winning a Hugo doesn’t change that, as the people voting might have a different taste than me.

    In any case, I’m currently reading Dune, I have a pile of 12 books I want to read lying on my table at home and I don’t read terribly fast.

  33. I’d already been favorably impressed by The Chronoliths and Blind Lake, which were in many ways novels similar to Spin: near-mainstream novels about fairly well-drawn characters living their lives against a background of an interestingly imagined SF conceit with apocalyptic overtones.

    Blind Lake in particular now strikes me as a sort of smaller-scale dry run for Spin, with some similar character relationships and other themes. If anything, the SF notions in Blind Lake are more intellectually interesting to me.

    But these novels didn’t quite have the same sweep, quite as successful a fusion of personal, social and cosmic ideas as Spin; this was the novel where the stuff Wilson had been working on through his career all really came together.

  34. “Oh, and I want to have Matt Arnold’s children. Word.”

    Patrick Nielsen Hayden,

    Thank you! Regrettably, you may not bear my offspring, nor can you. But I’ll settle instead if you will consent to letting me schedule you on panels at Penguicon with Scalzi, Nick Sagan, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette and Sarah Zettel!

  35. I paid my Supporting Membership fee and voted in the Hugos for the very first time this year because I felt so strongly that SPIN should win. The field was very strong; I thoroughly enjoyed all five novels; I thought the vote would be close, and I was delighted to see that SPIN won by a healthy margin. I’ve liked Wilson’s earlier work without loving it, but the contrast between big event/quotidian life, the driving need to understand/the insistent presence of economic and emotional life, struck me as just about perfect in SPIN. The “wow factor” in science fiction is so often about pushing the edge of genre expectations, occasionally we need a novel that redefines the core elements of the genre in a magisterial way. When I closed SPIN, I was acutely aware that the universe is very large and that human beings are very small–but not irrelevant. That, for me, is the essential experience of science fiction. (Fantasy, on the other hand, is all about an individual having the power to change the world.)

    Somewhat incidentally, I am among the readers who liked the characters in SPIN. I understand not liking them, though. They are very “head” dwelling folks, who experience their emotions and their physical nature through their intellectual understanding. That personality type is statistically rare and frequently annoying to others, but quite real–my household is full of ’em.

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