|Submitted by Archren |
(Oct 28, 2006)
The Hard SF/Fairy Tale must be one of the oddest creatures in the science fiction bestiary, but when done well it can be delightful (e.g, Stanislaw Lem's "The Cyberiad," which I was frequently reminded of when reading this book). “Collapsium” is a member of this rare species, and it is exactly as adventuresome and interesting as you could wish for. In a series of three linked stories all sharing the same main character, McCarthy starts to explore a far future with some mind-boggling (but rigorously extrapolated) technologies.
Bruno de Towaji is our grumpy wizard (hermetic mad scientist) hero in these tales, called up from his intensive researches on his lonesome mountain castle (terraformed asteroid) to help save the kingdom (solar system) when needed. As the inventor of the main technologies upon which this future is based, collapisum and wellstone, he is rich and smart beyond all belief, although also (as befits both the stereotype and unfortunately sometimes the reality) a regretful misanthrope. He has little elfin servants (robots), and a familiar (an experimental robot), and an inaccessible castle where no one should bother him (a private asteroid with Earthlike gravity and an atmosphere you could jump out of if you weren’t careful). The Queen of Sol herself (no need to look for fairy tale analogies there) must send emissaries to him in her time of need, since he had disabled his communication system to use its components in other experiments. What threat could possibly require the talents of such a man in such a future? Basically the problem in all three stories is the chance of black holes getting into the Sun and eating it from the inside out. Such a circumstance is about the only truly existential threat such a society could face. It is unfortunate then that Bruno’s nemesis keeps causing these exact sorts of problems.
How would a black hole get into the Sun? Well, that wonderful technology, collapsium, involves usually stable arrangements of incredibly tiny black holes. The science behind them is described in several appendices, all cleverly integrated with the text, providing not simply background information but also the occasional dialogue or plot point. When directed thither by the footnotes, I’d suggest not skipping them. It was one of the more interesting infodump techniques I’d ever seen.
McCarthy has spent a lot of time looking into the reality and consequences of the technologies posited here: since this book came out he has written three others in this universe (all of which I plan to read), and has also published a non-fiction book called “Hacking Matter” about the real underpinnings of programmable matter. Imagine taking some ribbon of ubiquitous material, and telling it to be rubber when you want a bungee cord and then telling it to be aluminum when you want a tent pole. Make that about a thousand times more complex and ubiquitous, and imagine the possibilities. By the end of the book McCarthy has even allowed Bruno to reinvent that most unscientific of all science fiction devices, Cavorite from H. G. Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon,” and throws in their spaceship for good measure, and he sells it to the audience with a completely straight face. It is a thing of wonder.
In order to explore and romp around in his shiny new future, McCarthy borrows lots of plots: fairy tales, murder mysteries, tales of engineering problem-solving, Bond villains - nothing that will be unfamiliar territory to the reader. As evidenced by the Wells homage above, he knows exactly what he’s doing and isn’t trying to take this stuff too seriously. The bad guy even engages in your over-the-top monologuing in his supposedly impenetrable stronghold at the end of the final piece, and you’d feel a little disappointed if he didn’t. Fairy tales may not seem like the most natural thing to mix with your hard science fiction, but they give the author a wonderful toolset to use when he’s showing off the really cool toys.