NESFA Members' Reviews

coverThe Collapsium

by Wil McCarthy

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Bantam Spectra, 2002, $6.9, 399 pp

I wish I could say that McCarthy's The Collapsium was a fine piece of hard SF. I think the problem here is that McCarthy is writing a super-science story (which means that the story is about a scientist or engineer who builds wonderful gadgets and uses them to do something big) but has gotten the notion into his head that stories need character development, too.

Now the epitome of the super-science story is the Arcot, Wade and Morey series of John W. Campbell, Jr. which were published in the 30s. There are three books, The Black Star Passes, The Islands of Space, and Invaders from the Infinite. AW&M start out as terrestrial scientists who invent some neat stuff on a future Earth where mile-long airplanes with hundreds of propellers continually circle the Earth and people get on and off on smaller planes when a big one passes near the start or destination.

By the end of the first book they've intervened in a war on Venus and fought off an interstellar invasion of the Solar System. In the second book, they build a spaceship capable of intergalactic travel and the third book finds them fighting off an invasion of the entire galaxy using weapons which can obliterate stars.

Each step is chronicled with plausible scientific jargon and hangs together more than adequately.

And Campbell put character into the stories: Arcot is a theoretical physicist and mathematician; Morey is a sidekick and physical scientist of some sort, and Wade is a chemist with black hair. That's enough character to let you tell them apart and what more do you need?

McCarthy is aiming for higher standards. This is not a good thing, since he doesn't seem to be capable of achieving them, and attempting the things and failing proves to be worse than not trying at all.

The hero of The Collapsium is a misfit genius-physicist who was for a while also prince-consort of the Queen of the Solar System. Right. He lives (alone) on an artificial world in the Oort cloud because he's such a misfit, but also because his work tends to be dangerous and just might destroy any world he's on.

His rival, another misfit, genius-physicist, former prince-consort of the (same) Queen of the Solar System, is busy building a giant ring of collapsium around the Sun to provide FTL communications within the very busy Solar System, but it keeps getting sabotaged. The Queen calls MG-P&FP-C #1 back down to the inner Solar System to rescue them all, since if the partly-built rings falls into the Sun, it will destroy the Solar System. He does, in an off-hand way, which also tends to annoy MG-P&FP-C #2 immensely.

This pattern is repeated in the middle third of the book.

And the book falls apart under its own weight. To start with, McCarthy lovingly built up a detailed pseudo-physics with appendices and diagrams which holds together just as badly as Campbell's. The difference is that Campbell was not foolish enough to wallow in detail so the absurdities in his super-science aren't especially apparent.

Secondly, Campbell didn't try to pretend that AW&M were anything but stock figures acting out his story. McCarthy seems to feel that by making his characters weird, he can give them character.

Finally, McCarthy's background is much richer than Campbell's who mentioned a few wow-type gigantic gadgets and left it at that. McCarthy wastes time trying to make it plausible that the entire Solar System would be ruled by the (immortal) Queen of Tonga. Or that humanity wouldn't go through a Singularity in a world where people are immortal, can produce any number of exact copies of themselves and then re-merge them later, have teleportation, strong AI, and weapons which can wreck worlds in individual hands.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if it wasn't all so annoying. (It is also yet another book with a cover with no discernable connection to the story.)

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