Axis is Robert Charles Wilson’s first follow-up to Spin, his Hugo award-winning novel that opens with the stars disappearing from the sky. Axis begins millions of years later, though only decades have passed on Earth, and takes place on a planet barely settled by human wanderers, fugitives, and refugees. This new world was by all appearances cultivated by an extraterrestrial intelligence to support human life, so the colonists are caught off guard when ash begins to rain periodically from the sky, leaving alien growths in its wake.
Weighed down by its complicated back story and lacking the relentless pacing of Spin, Axis is neither captivating in its own right or as a sequel to its predecessor. Characterization has never been Wilson’s strong point– his stories are often related from the perspective of one or two characters with a great deal of scientific or journalistic distance– and it fails him here. In his best work, Wilson’s able to overcome that obstacle and impart the awe and terror that his protagonists feel when witnessing inexplicable, earth-shattering phenomena or civilization-altering events in history. Here, the main characters react to their circumstances as if it was a particularly bad weekend to go on a hike. Even the villains give up and go home before the book is over.
Axis ends with a shrug, inexplicably skipping the climax and filling the reader in retroactively as the surviving characters recount their escape from an alien dust storm. In what I’m beginning to realize might be a bit of a science-fiction cliché, it’s revealed that the strange events in the book are a side effect of an ancient alien beacon. Through a convenient child conduit, the characters learn that the beacon is able to collect data, including human consciousness, and transmit it ten thousand years into the future. It’s a tantalizing technology, but one of absolutely no consequence to the characters in the story. Other than the promise that this idea might be more thoroughly explored Vortex, Wilson’s final volume in the series, I found their indifference infectious.