In An Absorbing 'Vortex,' The Future Is Alien Aliens exist — and we are their playthings — in the third book of Robert Charles Wilson's trilogy. Reviewer Glen Weldon calls Vortex a "bittersweet farewell to a soaring science-fiction conceit."
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In An Absorbing 'Vortex,' The Future Is Alien

Cover of Vortex, by Robert Charles Wilson

In Robert Charles Wilson's Hugo Award-winning 2005 novel Spin, mysterious beings, for reasons of their own, encase the Earth in a temporal bubble. With every year that passes on Earth, 100 million years pass in the surrounding universe, and by novel's end, the sun has swollen in the sky. Were it not for the alien membrane, the oceans would boil and all life on the planet would be eradicated. Meanwhile, for reasons humanity can only guess at, an enormous "stargate" appears in the waters of the Indian Ocean, allowing the people of Earth to travel to a series of planets — a "Ring of Worlds" connected by their own interstellar gates.

By Robert Charles Wilson
Hardcover, 368 pages
List Price: $25.99
Read An Excerpt

Wilson continued the story in 2007's Axis, which finds humanity beginning to colonize the world "next-door," stripping its natural resources as they learn more about the impossibly advanced alien presence they call the Hypotheticals.

Two characters from Axis cross over into Vortex, Wilson's third (and, he says, final) novel in the series. The identity of one of them is best left a surprise, but the other, Turk Findley, is much changed from when we saw him last. Rather, he's the same, but the world around him has literally and radically changed: Findley awakens in the middle of a desert 10,000 years in the future, after mankind has populated the Ring of Worlds and left the Earth behind. Rescued by the denizens of Vox, a sea vessel the size of a small continent, Findley discovers that his arrival on Vox has been prophesied for generations.

Robert Charles Wilson is also the author of Spin and Axis. Robert Di Maio/ hide caption

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Robert Di Maio/

A parallel storyline set 10,000 years in the past (our near-future) follows a Texas psychiatrist who finds herself growing increasingly concerned about an unstable young man brought in for evaluation, whose journals are filled with wild tales of a distant future, featuring a floating ship of fanatics determined to meet the Hypotheticals with the help of a man with the unusual name of ... Turk Findley.

Wilson delights in exploring the long-term (really, really long-term) ramifications of first contact, but leavens these quieter, more contemplative passages with regular jolts of breakneck action. He's confident enough in his gifts as a writer to merely assert, and not insist upon, the incredible events he's describing, which is, of course, the key to making them seem absolutely credible. Once again, he places us in a world unlike and yet very like our own, a world that has reconciled itself to the fact that aliens exist and that we are their playthings, but is still struggling with the knowledge that these aliens remain maddeningly uncommunicative, even indifferent. In Vortex, as in Spin and Axis, this set of conditions irrevocably alters the warp and woof of human life — emotionally, culturally, ecologically and philosophically.

Wilson shows us these changes, but not as expositional abstractions, the way other writers might. He isn't interested in the view from 30,000 feet; throughout the novel he fixes his gaze on the level of human interactions, allowing us to feel the presence of the Hypotheticals, to witness how the dull, unignorable fact of them has changed who we are.

Wilson proves especially nimble with small, unfussy moments and character beats — a lunch meeting morphs, subtly, into a first date; a fleeting facial expression provides a crucial clue; a previously hiss-worthy villain reveals an entirely understandable motivation.

The novel closes with a jarring narrative shift — a sudden zoom out to 30,000 feet, and then much, much wider, to encompass the whole of this universe, and others besides. It's a bold move, done to allow long-withheld information to come to light, for answers to be given. It satisfies the reader's curiosity, yes, but it feels exactly like the deus ex machina info dump it is.

You don't need to have read the first two novels in the series to understand and enjoy Vortex, but if you have, that closing chapter will land on you especially hard; it's Wilson's final, bittersweet farewell to a soaring science-fiction conceit that has provided his readers with so many small, thoughtful — and compellingly human — pleasures.

Excerpt: 'Vortex'

Cover of Vortex, by Robert Charles Wilson
By Robert Charles Wilson
Hardcover, 368 pages
List Price: $25.99

Chapter One: Sandra and Bose

No more, Sandra Cole thought when she woke up in her sweltering apartment. Today was the last day she would drive to work and spend her day in the company of emaciated prostitutes, addicts in the first sweaty stages of withdrawal, chronic liars, petty criminals. Today was the day she would hand in her resignation.

She woke every weekday morning with the same thought. It hadn't been true yesterday. It wasn't true today. But someday it would be true. No more. She savored the idea as she showered and dressed. It kept her going through her first cup of coffee and a quick breakfast of yogurt and buttered toast. By then she had mustered the courage to face the day. To face the knowledge that nothing, after all, would change.


She happened to be passing the reception area at State Care when the cop brought in the boy to be registered for evaluation.

The boy would be her responsibility for the next week: his folder had already been attached to her morning case list. His name was Orrin Mather, and he was supposed to be non-violent. In fact he looked terrified. His eyes were wide and moist and he darted his head left and right like a sparrow scouting for predators.

Sandra didn't recognize the cop who brought him in — he wasn't one of the regulars. In itself that wasn't unusual; delivering minor arrests to the Texas State Care intake facility wasn't high-prestige duty at the Houston Police Department. Oddly, though, this particular cop seemed personally concerned with his charge. The boy didn't cringe away but pressed close to him, as if for protection. The cop kept a steady hand on his shoulder and said something Sandra couldn't hear but which seemed to soothe the boy's anxiety.

They were a study in contrasts. The cop was tall, big-bodied but not fat, with a dark complexion, dark hair, dark eyes. The boy was six inches shorter, dressed in a prison-issue jumper that sagged over his skinny body. He was so pale he looked like he'd been living in a cave for the past six months.

The orderly on reception duty at State was Jack Geddes, a man plausibly rumored to moonlight as a bouncer in a downtown bar. Geddes was often rough with patients — too rough, in Sandra's opinion. He sprang forward from his place behind the reception desk as soon as he registered Orrin Mather's agitation, quickly followed by the duty nurse with her armamentarium of sedatives and needles.

The cop — and this was very unusual — placed himself squarely between Orrin and the orderly. "None of that ought to be necessary," he said. His voice was Texas with a hint of something foreign. "I can escort Mr. Mather wherever you need him to go."

Sandra stepped forward, slightly embarrassed that she hadn't spoken first. She introduced herself as Dr. Cole and said, "The first thing we'll need to do is an intake interview. Do you understand, Mr. Mather? That happens in a room down the corridor. I'll ask you some questions and take down your information. Then we'll assign you a room of your own. Do you understand?"

Orrin Mather took a steadying breath and nodded. Geddes and the nurse backed off, Geddes looking a little annoyed. The cop gave Sandra an evaluative look.

"I'm Officer Bose," he said. "Dr. Cole, can I have a word with you once you get Orrin settled?"

"That might take some time."

"I'll wait," Bose said. "If you don't mind."

And that was the most unusual thing of all.


Daytime temperatures in the city had topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit for ten consecutive days now. The State Care evaluation facility was air-conditioned, often to the point of absurdity (Sandra kept a sweater in her office), but only a trickle of cool air forced its way through a ceiling grate into the room that was reserved for intake interviews. Orrin Mather was already sweating when Sandra took the chair across the table from him. "Morning, Mr. Mather," she said.

He relaxed a little at the sound of her voice. "You can call me Orrin, ma'am." His eyes were blue and his big lashes looked incongruous in his angular face. A gash in his right cheek was healing into a scar. "Most everybody does."

"Thank you, Orrin. I'm Dr. Collier, and we'll be talking together over the next few days."

"You're the one who decides who keeps me."

"In a way, that's true. I'll be doing your psychiatric evaluation. But I'm not here to judge you, do you understand? I'm here to find out what kind of help you need and whether we can give it to you."

Orrin nodded once, ducking his chin to his chest. "You decide whether I go to a State Care camp."

"Not just me. The whole staff is involved, one way or another."

"But you're the one I talk to?"

"For now, yes."

"Okay," he said. "I get it."

There were four security cameras in the room, one in each corner where the walls met the ceiling. Sandra had seen recordings of her own and other sessions and knew how she would look on the monitors in the adjoining room: foreshortened and prim in a blue blouse and skirt, her ID badge dangling on a lanyard around her neck as she leaned across the plain pine table. The boy would be reduced by the alchemy of closed-circuit video to a generic interviewee. Though she really ought to stop thinking of Orrin Mather as a boy, as young as he looked. He was nineteen, according to his file. Old enough to know better, as Sandra's mother used to say. "You're originally from North Carolina, Orrin, is that right?"

"I guess it says so in those papers you're looking at."

"Do the papers have it right?"

"Born in Raleigh and lived there, yes, ma'am, all my life till I came to Texas."

"We'll talk about that later on. For now I just need to be sure I have the basics right. Do you know why the police took you into custody?"

He lowered his gaze. "Yes."

"Can you tell me about it?"


"That's the legal word. What would you call it?"

"I don't know. Sleeping in an alley, I guess. And getting beat up by those men."

"It's not a crime to get beaten up. The police took you into custody for your own protection, didn't they?"

"I suppose they did. I was pretty bloody when they found me. I didn't do anything to provoke those fellas. They just set on me because they were drunk. They tried to get my satchel, but I didn't let them. I wish the police had come along a little earlier."

A police patrol had found Orrin Mather semi-conscious and bleeding on a sidewalk in southwest Houston. No address, no identification and no apparent means of support. Under the vagrancy laws written in the aftermath of the Spin, Orrin had been taken into custody for evaluation. His physical injuries had been easy enough to treat. His mental state was an open question, however, one which Sandra was expected to resolve over the course of the next seven days. "You have family, Orrin?"

"Just my sister Ariel back in Raleigh."

"And the police have contacted her?"

"They say so, yes, ma'am. Officer Bose says she's coming by bus, to get me. That's a long trip, that bus trip. Hot this time of year I expect. Ariel don't care for hot weather."

She would have to ask Bose about that. Usually, if a family member was willing to assume responsibility, there was no need for a vag case to end up in State Care. There were no violent acts in Orrin's arrest record, and he was clearly aware of his situation, not obviously delusional. At least not at the moment. Though there was something uncanny about him, Sandra thought. (An unprofessional observation, which she would not record in her notes.)

She began with the standard interview from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Did he know the date and so forth. Most of his answers were straightforward and coherent. But when she asked him whether he heard voices, Orrin hesitated. "Guess I don't," he said at last.

"Are you sure? It's okay to talk about these things. If there's a problem, we want to help you with it."

He nodded earnestly. "I know that. It's a hard question, though. I don't hear voices, ma'am, no, not exactly . . . but I write things sometimes."

"What kind of things?"

"Things I don't always understand."

Here, then, was the entry point.

Sandra added a note to Orrin's file — poss. delusions, written — for later exploration. Then, because the subject was obviously distressing to him, she smiled and said, "Well, that's enough for now." Half an hour had passed. "We'll talk again soon. I'll have an orderly escort you to the room where you'll be staying over the next few days."

"I'm sure it's very nice."

Compared to the back alleys of urban Houston, maybe it would be. "The first day at State can be hard for some people, but trust me, it's not as bad as seems. Evening meals are at six in the commissary."

Orrin looked doubtful. "Is that like a cafeteria?"


"Can I ask you, is it loud in there? I don't care for noise when I eat."

The patient commissary was a zoo and generally sounded like one, though the staff made sure it was safe. Sensitivity to noise, Sandra added to her notes. "It can get a little loud, yes. Do you think you can deal with it?"

He gave her a downcast look but nodded. "I'll try. Thank you for warning me up front — I appreciate it."

One more lost soul, more fragile and less combative than most. Sandra hoped a week in State would do Orrin Mather more good than harm. But she wouldn't have cared to lay odds on it.


The remanding officer was still waiting when she left the interview room, much to Sandra's surprise. It was customary for cops to dump a case and walk away. State Care had begun its institutional existence as a means of relieving the overloaded prison system during the worst years of the Spin and after. That emergency had ended a quarter of a century ago, but State still served as a dumping ground for trivial offenders with obvious head issues. It was a convenient arrangement for the police, less so for the overextended and underfunded State Care staff. There was seldom any follow-up from law enforcement. As far as the police were concerned, a transfer was a closed file — or worse, a flushed toilet.

Bose's HPD uniform was crisp despite the heat. He started to ask her about her impressions of Orrin Mather, but because it was past time for lunch, and her afternoon schedule was heavily booked, Sandra invited him to join her in the cafeteria — the staff cafeteria, not the patient commissary Orrin Mather would almost certainly find distressing.

She took her usual Monday soup and salad and waited while Bose did the same. It was late enough that they had no trouble finding a free table. "I want to do some follow-up on Orrin," Bose said.

"That's a new one."

"Excuse me?"

"We don't generally get a whole lot of follow-up from HPD."

"I guess not. But there are some unanswered questions in Orrin's case."

It was "Orrin," she noticed, not "the prisoner" or "the patient." Clearly, Officer Bose had taken a personal interest. "I didn't see anything too unusual in his file."

"His name came up in connection with another case. I can't talk about that in any detail, but I wanted to ask . . . did he mention anything about his writing?"

Sandra's interest ticked up a notch. "Very briefly, yes."

"When he was taken into custody Orrin was carrying a leather satchel with a dozen lined notebooks inside, all of them filled with writing. That's what he was defending when he was attacked. Orrin's generally a cooperative guy, but we had to struggle to get the notebooks away from him. He needed to be reassured that we'd keep them safe and give them back as soon as his case was resolved."

"And did you? Give them back, I mean?"

"Not yet, no."

"Because if Orrin is so concerned with those notebooks they might be pertinent to my evaluation."

"I understand that, Dr. Collier. That's why I wanted to talk to you. The thing is, the contents are relevant to another case HPD is dealing with. I'm having them transcribed, but it's a slow process — Orrin's handwriting isn't easy to decipher."

"Can I see the transcripts?"

"That's what I came here to suggest. But I need to ask a favor of you in return. Until you've looked at the whole document, can we keep this matter out of official channels?"

It was an odd request and she hesitated before answering. "I'm not sure what you mean by official channels. Any pertinent observation goes into Orrin's evaluation. That's non-negotiable."

"You can make any observation you like, as long as you don't copy or quote directly from the notebooks. Just until we resolve certain issues."

"Orrin's under my care for just seven days, Officer Bose. At the end of that time I have to submit a recommendation." A recommendation that would change Orrin Mather's life drastically, she did not add.

"I understand, and I'm not trying to interfere. Your evaluation is what I'm interested in. What I'd like to get from you, informally, is your opinion of what Orrin wrote. Specifically the reliability of it."

At last Sandra began to understand. Something Orrin had written was potential evidence in a pending case, and Bose needed to know how trustworthy it (or its author) was. "If you're asking me for testimony in a legal proceeding — "

"No, nothing like that. Just a back-channel opinion. Anything you can tell me that doesn't violate patient confidentiality or any other professional concerns you have."

"I'm not sure — "

"You might understand a little better once you've read the document."

It was Bose's earnestness that finally persuaded her to agree, at least tentatively. And she was genuinely curious about the notebooks and Orrin's attachment to them. If she discovered something clinically relevant she would feel no compunction about disregarding any promise she made to Bose. Her first loyalty was to her patient, and she made sure he understood that.

He accepted her conditions without complaint. Then he stood up. He had left his salad unfinished, a bed of lettuce from which he had systematically extracted all the cherry tomatoes. "Thanks, Dr. Collier. I appreciate your help. I'll email you the first pages tonight."

He gave her an HPD card with his phone and an email address and his full name: Jefferson Amrit Bose. She repeated it to herself as she watched him disappear into a throng of white-clad clinicians at the commissary door.


After a day of routine consultations Sandra drove home under the long light of the setting sun.

Sunset often made her think of the Spin. The sun had aged and expanded during the radically foreshortened years of the Spin, and although it looked prosaic enough in the western sky, that was an engineered illusion. The real sun was an aged and bloated monster, furiously dying at the heart of the solar system. What she saw on the horizon was what remained of its lethal radiation after it had been filtered and regulated by the inconceivably powerful technology of the Hypotheticals. For years now — for all of Sandra's adult life — humanity had been living on the sufferance of those alien and voiceless beings.

The sky was a hard blue, obscured to the southeast by clouds like glassy coral growths. One hundred five degrees Fahrenheit in downtown Houston according to the weather report, just as it had been yesterday and the day before. The talk on the newscasts was all about the ongoing White Sands launches, rockets that injected sulfur aerosols into the upper atmosphere in an attempt to slow global warming. Against that pending apocalypse (which was none of their doing) the Hypotheticals had offered no defense. They would protect the Earth from the swollen sun, but the CO2 content of the atmosphere, apparently, was none of their business. It was, self-evidently, mankind's business. And yet the tankers continued creeping up the Houston Ship Channel with their cargoes of oil, plentiful and cheap now that Equatorian crude had begun to flow from the new world beyond the Arch. Two planets'-worth of fossil fuels to cook ourselves with, Sandra thought. The car's laboring air conditioner hummed a rebuke to her hypocrisy, but she couldn't bring herself to forego the rush of cool air.

Ever since she finished her internship at UCSF and went to work for State Care, Sandra had spend her days rendering pass/fail verdicts over troubled minds, applying tests most functional adults easily passed. Is the subject oriented to time and place? Does the subject understand the consequences of his actions? But if she could give the same test to humanity as a whole, Sandra thought, the outcome would be very much in doubt. Subject is confused and often self-destructive. Subject pursues short-term gratification at the expense of his own well-being.

By the time she reached her apartment in Clear Lake night had fallen and the temperature had dropped a trivial degree or two. She microwaved dinner, opened a bottle of red wine, and checked to see if Bose's email had reached her yet.

It had. A few dozen pages. Pages Orrin Mather had supposedly written, but she saw at once how unlikely that was.

She printed the pages and settled down in a comfortable chair to read them.

My name is Turk Findley, the document began.

Excerpted from Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson. Copyright 2011 by Robert Charles Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Tor Books.

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