- The Collapsium
- By Wil McCarthy
- Del Rey
- $24.95/$37.95 Canada
- Hardcover, August 2000
- ISBN 0-345-40856-X
Some geniuses crave isolation, repairing to secluded laboratories to labor undisturbed, but Bruno de Towaji has outdone them all. De Towaji is known throughout the Queendom of Sol for inventing the collapson, a space-bending, startlingly stable cube formed by eight proton-sized black holes. This led to a revolution: a collapson network that allows everyone to travel anywhere by transmitting facsimiles of themselves. Impossibly rich on the proceeds of these inventions, and tired of life at court, de Towaji has retired to a tiny, custom-built planet. The body-rejuvenating "fax" process has accidentally made humanity immortal, so he has an eternity to develop his obsession, a collapson lattice that would allow a glimpse of the end of time.
Meanwhile, a less gifted colleague, Marlon Sykes, has begun a "ring collapsiter" -- a collapson conduit circling the sun. But the incomplete collapsiter is falling into the star, spelling certain disaster. Returning to society at the request of his beloved Queen Tamra, de Towaji groans under the burden of a race expecting salvation, and is little assuaged when inspiration does lead to a simple solution.
A decade later, the ring collapsiter is falling again -- but this time, it's sabotage. Worse, the saboteur has turned murderer; de Towaji, Sykes and the queen barely escape. Soon they track him down: a twisted, facsimile copy of an anti-collapson playwright. Another brainstorm saves the collapsiter, but de Towaji returns home disturbed.
Another decade passes before he opens his network gate. Immediately a broken, miserable creature spills out. Appallingly, the creature is him -- a facsimile diverted after the first crisis and tortured for 20 years. Even more horrifying is his message: The network and the collapsiter have been deliberately destroyed. Black holes will soon rain down on the sun, wiping out his queen and everything else -- and there's nothing de Towaji can do about it.
Plausible yet startling
Because it challenges and extrapolates our understanding of the universe, and then doubles that reinvention back onto the equally complex fabric of human interaction, "hard" science fiction can be particularly fresh and imaginative. Starting from a plausible yet startling invention, McCarthy follows the logical lines of sight, building in parallel the technological and societal innovations that are the collapsium's natural sequels.
How would people behave given the ability to "fax" themselves anywhere -- incidentally eliminating mortality as if it were a bug in our operating system? What issues would arise that even they wouldn't expect? McCarthy explores these questions carefully, and -- although his Queendom of Sol looks like Shangri-La with matter replication -- he does not shrink from presenting darker responses to the new opportunities.
Meanwhile, original quandaries occur, such as the indispensable police inspector who dies in an accident. Though her experiences are on file, the only stored fax image they can find is 11 years old. The resulting character, with an adolescent girl's sensibility and a police veteran's memories, is fascinatingly conflicted. Interesting, too, is McCarthy's not-altogether-savory suggestion that humans are hard-wired for monarchy -- for someone to whom we can surrender our sense of responsibility. Yet McCarthy depicts his regal scapegoat as a flesh-and-blood woman whose inner nobility suits her to the task.
Bruno de Towaji is perplexing. He handily resolves the plot in each of the episodes of this triptych by well-timed intellectual revelations, at times coming off like a comic book hero whose superpower is an undefeatable intellect -- just as his nemesis is a cackling villain by the end. Yet this feeling evaporates when Bruno interacts with Muddy, his broken, tortured facsimile. Bruno alone is a very rich, very smart man muttering into his beard; but Bruno and Muddy together -- two versions of the same soul damaged in their own ways -- plumb provocative depths.
The nice thing about reading this story is that I actually wanted to visit this Queendom and meet these people. Far too often, the folks you find in idealized visions of the future come off as repellently sanctimonious. These people, though certainly inclined to self-absorption, never fall into the trap of thinking of themselves as a superior society.