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by Robert Charles Wilson

Axis, the second volume of a projected trilogy whose first installment, Spin, won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2005, makes a substantial narrative break with the earlier book, beginning some decades after the end of Spin and re-introducing only one of its main characters, in a marginal role.

The human predicament at the heart of the story, however, remains the same. Earth and (after its human settlement) Mars have been wrapped in a kind of membrane that has taken both planets out of time, preserving each “down through four billion years of galactic history like a tulip bulb wintering in a dark cellar.” Human destiny, it appears, is being managed by some ancient and advanced cosmic force known as “the Hypotheticals.” But no one has any idea to what purpose.

At the end of Spin, an arch appeared that linked Earth to a new planet specially created by the Hypotheticals for our colonization. Axis takes place entirely on this “world next door” and follows the adventures of Lise Adams and Turk Findley. A search for Lise’s father gets them involved in the consequences of an attempt by a cult of “Fourths” (humans given an extra-long lifespan thanks to Martian genetic technology) to breed a special kind of being who will be able to communicate directly with the Hypotheticals.

Wilson’s theme is the relationship between theology and science, specifically as this plays out with regard to evolution. The Hypotheticals are the ultimate Intelligent Designers, but they are also a collective, universal, possibly eternal consciousness.

Axis is a tighter, faster-paced novel than Spin, but also more conventional. The mystery of the Hypotheticals is hardly advanced at all, while the plot falls back on such fantasy clichés and Bible scourings as the coming of the Chosen One to a desert people. One suspects the Hypotheticals were reading the Dune series when they set all this in motion.

Wilson plays it close to the chest when it comes to guessing what to expect for a finale, but in the meantime he delivers a thrilling and imaginative romp through one possible future.