The Collapsium – Wil McCarthy (2000)
‘In the eighth decade of the Queendom of Sol, three things form the backbone of civilisation:
WELLSTONE: programmable matter of almost magical properties
COLLAPSIUM: a deadly crystal composed of miniature black holes, indispensable for the transmission of matter and information through the solar system.
RIVALRY: a bitter competition between Her Majesty’s two most brilliant scientists. It is a rivalry that will threaten everything.
Combining rigorous hard science with the lyrical beauty of Michael Moorcock’s Dancer’s at the End of Time novels, Wil McCarthy takes us into a mythical realm of physics, court intrigue and stellar catastrophe.’
Blurb from the Gollancz 2001 paperback edition.
Wil McCarthy’s stylish and baroque tale of laconic scientist Bruno de Towaji is both original and refreshing, set in a Solar System where Tamra, immortal Queen of Tonga has been elevated (due to – it would appear – popular demand) to the position of Queen of the Solar System, attended by a court of Declarants and a royal guard of robots.
This novel could also be considered as the 21st Century version of Gernsback’s ‘Ralph 124C 41+’ since it features the most brilliant scientist in society as the hero, a dastardly foe, women to be rescued and problems to be solved by power of the scientific mind.
Bruno is the inventor of Collapsium, a material constructed of interlocked neutron sized black holes. It is a substance which has many varied uses, the royalties from which have made him inestimably rich.
Because of the dangerous nature of his further experiments, Bruno has been ‘banished’ to an tiny artificial world in the Outer System which orbits a just-as-artificial miniature sun. One day his solitude is interrupted by the arrival of the Queen who demands that he return to court to work on a scientific problem. A rival of Bruno’s, Marlon Sykes, has begun the construction of a Ringworld-style band of Collapsium around the Sun, a construction which will vastly increase the speed of human and data transmission across the system. The partly constructed ring however, has lost its position and is beginning to fall into the Sun. It goes without saying that the consequences of millions of tiny black holes falling into the Sun would be disastrous.
It is up to Bruno to find a solution and save the Solar System from Stellar collapse.
The joy of this book is both in its preposterously believable neo-Elizabethan social structure and the way McCarthy seamlessly welds it to the complex scientific theories around which the substance of Collapsium is based. It is also laced with a dry wit and a degree of characterisation absent from the work of many of McCarthy’s contemporaries.
Bruno travels from outrageous setting to outrageous setting – a banquet in a domed enclave atop a mountain on a partly transformed Venus; Marlon’s cylindrical space-habitat whose inner surface is dotted with Athenian architecture, and there is the Collapsiter Ring itself. These journeys are achieved by the use of the Fax, essentially a matter-transmitting device which destroys the original and reassembles a duplicate at the destination.
With the fax of course, one can make copies of oneself in order to work on several projects at once, and later conflate the copies back into one individual, complete with the memories of all the copies.
It’s a fascinating notion and one which McCarthy explores but perhaps doesn’t exploit as much as he could have, although the basic concept is important to the plot.
Having stabilised the Collapsiter, Bruno is called back again when the Ring is sabotaged, following which copies of Marlon Sykes are murdered at their various stations along its circumference. A solution to the crisis and the identity of the apparent saboteur are discovered, but four years later Bruno is visited by a dishevelled and psychologically damaged copy of himself who has been imprisoned and tortured for years by the real saboteur, Marlon Sykes. Once again, Bruno is called upon to save the Solar System from destruction
McCarthy’s retro writing style of course helps to add a certain verisimilitude to the baroque nature of the Queendom’s social structure which, in other hands, might appear a trifle ludicrous but here seems perversely a natural and inevitable political development. It has hints of Moorcock, of PG Wodehouse and of Gernsback but is nonetheless a unique voice.