“Clearly, there was intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy; and, just as obviously, it was nothing like our own. It was immensely powerful, terrifyingly patient, and blankly indifferent to the terror it had inflicted on the world.”
The AV Club published an excellent article yesterday about world-building and rules-setting in speculative fiction. As I struggle with my own project for NaNoWriMo, I found it particularly relevant. Creating or exploring an alternate universe, whether it’s just like ours but with vampires or one where space dwarves dig tunnels through time out of asteroid belts, is what’s drawn me to fiction all my life. At its heart is what Orson Scott Card once described as the real question behind science fiction: “How would people react if…?”
If an author can build a fantastic and well-defined world, I’ll forgive a little character sketchiness or narrative dead ends. After all, who knows how you’d really react if your plane crashed on an island ruled by smoke monsters and ghosts?
What makes Spin so remarkable is there’s very little to forgive. The book opens just before the stars disappear from the nighttime sky. In the first of a rapid series of revelations, it’s discovered that the stars haven’t gone out, they’ve been obscured. Earth has been ensnared in a sophisticated net of unknown origin for no discernable purpose.
Spin follows the search over several decades as scientists work to discover what happened and why. Details of how individuals and governments react to the phenomenon are supplied liberally throughout the book, but its focus is a trio of childhood friends who come of age in what comes to be known as the Spin. The characters divide sharply over whether evolutionary science or eschatological religion will provide them answers and comfort. And though the religious unapologetically come out worse for the wear, the book portrays both reactions as part of the same futile need to make sense of something that is unlikely to be answered in the course of a single lifetime.
By the midpoint of the novel, even the very nature of a lifetime comes into question. Every new discovery is simultaneously wondrous and terrifying. How would people react if confronted with unavoidable evidence of an indifferent universe? The upending of all conventional scientific and religious thought? Spin is a brilliant, fully realized exploration of that question.
 Yes, I know. But Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy was one of the few resources available on the subject when I was younger. It’s an unexpected consequence of the Internet that nowadays you don’t have to go to a convention to learn a beloved author’s most polarizing opinions.