Review – Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

“What had been released into the desert vacuum and starry oases of the galaxy was the inexorable logic of reproduction and natural selection.”

At the end of Axis, Turk Findley and Isaac Dvali died in the Equatorian desert, their consciousnesses collected by an alien beacon and sent ten thousand years into the future. In Vortex, Turk finds himself reconstituted, rescued, and then a captive of Vox Core, a society on a pilgrimage from one end of the ring of worlds to another. At the end of their journey lies Earth, and the citizens of Vox believe Turk is their key to unlocking the door back to the homeworld of their human ancestors.

As a continuation of what can now unfortunately be referred to as the “Spin Cycle”, Vortex is an improvement over the largely uneventful Axis. Wilson’s novel Spin ended on a note of hope, as a portal in the Indian ocean offered passage to the first of many new worlds tailored for human life by an alien technology on autopilot. Axis did little to expand the setting post-Spin, other than clarify that the beings Earth had come to think of as the Hypotheticals were long dead. Vortex is more ambitious. Though limited in location, it follows humanity to the end of the universe.

Like Axis, the narrative in Vortex is less interesting than the concepts it presents. Particularly notable are the so-called cortical and limbic democracies that populate the ring of worlds. Limbic societies like the Vox are connected via neural networks that link their emotions in consensus. Their cortical enemies are joined in the rational centers of their brain, and collectively act in a manner more empirically intellectual. This helps explain how large civilizations would be able to work together across many worlds toward a common goal without destroying each other. Though the corticals are prone to think themselves into lethargy, and limbic societies typically end up insane.

With its depiction of Earth undone by pollution due to the easy availability of off-world oil, Mars as a failed society of philosopher kings, and blind pursuit of prophecy and science as equally dangerous, Vortex addresses all of the themes common to Wilson’s work in a fresh setting. Despite reliance on his usual tropes (children specifically tuned to alien signals, the obligatory frame story), Wilson makes a successful case that a follow-up to Spin was necessary. Taken together with Axis, Vortex tells a complete story that reflects on the insignificance of collective human history, yet doesn’t discount the miracle of individual human existence.

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