Novel: Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

When Robert Charles Wilson is on his game, his prose reads as beautifully as anyone in the genre, smoothly, simply, but with compelling narrative power. Vortex (2011) concludes his epic SF trilogy about the mysterious cosmic entities known as the Hypotheticals, and the effects they have on humankind. It’s definitely Wilson on his game, capping off the trilogy in stirring fashion. If you haven’t read the preceding volumes, I recommend them, especially Spin.

Spin established, and Axis further developed, a future Earth forever transformed by the powerful Hypotheticals, who have leveraged their advanced science and technology to shield the Earth from its expanding sun and open portals to other habitable planets. Vortex continues the story, ricocheting between two story tracks. In near-future Houston, in the wake of the Spin, we follow the story of Sandra Cole, an admitting psychiatrist for a Texas state care facility, her job to help people so disoriented by the implications of the Spin that they’re unable to take care of themselves. Sandra gets involved with a police officer named Bose, who drops off a troubled young man named Orrin Mather, a simple, peculiar fellow who may possess key testimony in a case Bose is working. Bose needs Sandra to evaluate Orrin’s mental state, however: strangely, Orrin seems to writing down — by hand, in a style well beyond his ability — a narrative of two people of the far future.

Orrin’s tale involves Turk Findley (of Axis), a rough-and-tumble bush pilot transported from the portal world of Equatoria through a temporal gate to the far future. Turk’s guide through the future is Treya, a woman who’s been imprinted with the personality of a 21st-century human in order to help him acclimate. The two of them find themselves caught in the machinery of a war between rival human factions, as Treya’s people return to the ruins of a dying Earth to finally face the Hypotheticals.

Wilson integrates these two story tracks skillfully, and it’s a very compelling read, ricocheting between a convincing near future and a harrowing far one, while managing to keep all the threads between them intact. The mystery is compelling, the romance effective, and science fictionally there’s plenty of thought-provoking big concept sense of wonder. I was particularly intrigued by his future societies, the cortical and limbic democracies, which are interesting in and of themselves, but also comment interestingly on contemporary political divides. Wilson’s prose is never ostentatious, but so finely crafted it makes you want to read it aloud; just pure, commanding story-telling. If you’ve never read this author, I recommend this series, which blends realistic futurism with grand, eye-popping cosmic mysteries, without every losing sight of the characters and their human stories. Great stuff.

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