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[This review contains mild spoilers.]

Is it just part of humanity's unbending optimism, or stubborn delusion, that keeps us clinging to the hope of deliverance from higher powers? I usually go with a combination of both. Robert Charles Wilson's Spin trilogy turns out, in the end, to have been about our desire to believe that the universe is really all about us and that everything happens for a reason. Which they do, but not often for our preferred reason. If our existence were really as simple as religions make it out to be, we'd never have needed religion all along.

This is a trilogy that began in a burst of brilliance, but has now settled into "very good." Ever keen to avoid repeating himself in his first effort at series fiction, Wilson nonetheless makes Vortex the story of a religious pilgrimage as much as Axis was. But whereas Axis eventually settled into more or less a chase story, Vortex more compellingly presents itself as an account of people's need to understand the meaning and purpose in their lives, which they will seek wisely or unwisely, depending upon whether unrealistic expectations are propelling the quest.

Axis made it apparent that the Hypotheticals, responsible for enshrouding the Earth in a temporal coccoon, were most likely not alien beings at all, but a kind of process, pursuing their ineffable purpose without anything we might recognize as thoughtful intent. One belief commonly held by those of a devout frame of mind is teleology, the idea that not only is there intelligent design to the universe, but that this intelligence is intimately concerned with our welfare, and has structured the universe's grand design expressly with us in mind. Wilson's trilogy asks what might happen if the religious-minded among us were half-right. What if a guiding hand truly was in charge of our planet's destiny, but it was one without awareness, without sentient thought, without an agenda of saving or redeeming us, but simply in pursuit of a preset goal from which it could not deviate? That the universe itself might be purposeless does not mean our own lives have to be. Meaning comes from within.

Turk Findley awakens ten thousand years after he and the gene-modified boy Isaac were drawn into the Hypotheticals' temporal Arch on the planet Equatoria, at the climax of Axis. He finds himself on an artificial floating archipelago called Vox, populated by a fanatical collective who, just like Axis's rogue scientist Avram Dvali, are obsessed with making direct contact with the Hypotheticals, whom they view as no less than gods. Like all fanatics, they simply take for granted that their gods want to meet them, too, and will eagerly deliver them the spiritual ascendance they crave. Ideological conformity is monitored by an implanted node in each Vox citizen linking their minds to the Coryphaeus, Vox's governing Network. Other human societies in the Ring of Worlds connected by the Arches oppose Vox, and Turk's arrival coincides with one of them dropping a small nuke on Vox Core, an event that proves only a brief if significant interruption.

Turk and Isaac are revered by the Vox community, as it's believed they've been blessed by the Hypotheticals' presence. The facts are just a bit different. But when the archipelago passes through the Arch to Earth to discover a barren, desolate world with poisoned oceans and a toxic atmosphere, it does little to disabuse the delusions of Vox's people, particularly following an intriguing discovery in the deserts of what was once Antarctica.

This alone would make for a fascinating SFnal odyssey about destiny and disillusion. But Wilson hooks the reader by providing a parallel narrative set in our world in the years immediately following the Spin. Vortex may be a little less action-packed than Axis, but in terms of its drama and character moments — Wilson's hallmark — it's a much better book. Turk's story of his adventures on Vox is somehow being channeled into the mind and the diaries of young drifter Orrin Mather. Orrin is brought into a psychiatric clinic in Houston by a cop named Bose, who, in the opinion of Dr. Sandra Cole, is taking a level of personal interest in the case unusual for an officer. Bose's reasons become apparent as the two of them seek to unravel Orrin's mystery. Has the boy, who's barely literate and never demonstrated any particular creativity in his life, simply made this far future saga (written just as skillfully as a Robert Charles Wilson novel!) up? The connection between Turk and Orrin is an inspired touch, fully in keeping with the level of creativity we're used to seeing from Wilson.

And yet, neither of the book's two narratives is without blemish. The "real world" storyline, for lack of a better term, employs some cardboard bad guys in the service of its suspense. Also, I couldn't help thinking that Wilson somewhat undermined the theme of the dangers of fanaticism and groupthink in the Turk/Vox storyline. Usually, in a story with such a theme, one would expect the message that humanity's salvation lies in personal responsibility and reason, rather than in forever gazing at the skies hoping for divine favor. But while Wilson offers some amazing, extended 2001-ish moments of universal apotheosis in the book's final passages, the fact that the boy Isaac is clearly turning into the kind of higher power the people of Vox were so earnestly seeking, and that our fate is more or less in his hands, does mute the intellectual impact of the whole affair even as it levels up the sense of wonder factor. Is the only mistake in pinning all your hopes upon gods simply picking the wrong one?