Review: The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy
Hardcover: Del Rey, 0-345-40856-X, $24.95, 325pp, August 2000

This is a very strange book, provoking two opposed reactions.

Once upon a time (July 1999, to be exact), “Once Upon a Matter Crushed” appeared as a novella. It was later lowercased and became “book one” of this novel. Now speaking structurally rather than historically, a second novella, “twice upon a star imperiled,” was added to be “book two” and a portion as long as those two combined, “thrice upon a schemer’s plotting” (which is either a very long novella or a short novel) was added to be “book three.” As far as I can tell, neither of these other parts were published separately, yet both repeat things in a way that would make sense for self-sufficient works but is unnecessary in a novel.

The part I mostly like is the physics superscience background. [1] In this book, in the not-too-distant future, people like Bruno de Towaji can manipulate things at the quantum level, crush things into micro-blackholes, create vacuum so empty of all things as to make ordinary vacuum a comparatively impenetrable sludge (with interesting effects on “light speed”) and even develop “ertial” devices (which are obviously shielded from inertia), not to mention “fax” things (including people, who may or may not later be merged completely or have various mental snapshots of theirs added to others). In this milieu, the terraforming of Venus with “wellstone flakes” (which cause “pseudochemical” atmospheric transformations) is child’s play, albeit rich child’s play. And, speaking of children, the fax technology also has an “immorbidity” filter which makes everyone effectively immortal and only at the beginnings of their lives as long as they don’t suffer from accidents. Even if they do, they still have fax backup copies. That is, if a madman doesn’t kill them all. The funny thing about this is that, for the longest time, this all seems rather plausible even if the protagonist is living in the Kuiper Belt on a world of his design which is 636 meters in diameter and made habitable (as long as you don’t get more than a few feet up) by its own artificial mini-star. Gosh! Wow! Sensawunda!

A part I mostly don’t like is the societal background in which humanity has decided to have itself a monarchy because, as is repeated in variant forms several times throughout the book, “The human brain was said to be wired for monarchy, for hierarchy, for the elevation and admiration of single individuals, and now the truth of this hit Bruno like a heavy gilded pillow.” (My reaction to that is, “Pfft. Show me the scientific proof.” And, if somehow there is any that is credible, my reaction to that is, “We’re also ‘wired’ to fling poo like our monkey cousins but we’ve mostly gotten over it.) This (at least I assume it’s this or something like it) leads to a part I also don’t like though it’s well done, and that’s the style, which is a combination of magic fairy tale tone and monarchical affectation but which also manages to be frequently funny which pays well until the end, when it becomes distancing.

Between all the tech, the monarchy and its underpinnings, and the style, I kept thinking of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I didn’t like, either. At least until the end, when I felt like Graham Chapman’s Colonel should come out and say, “Stop! You had a nice bit there but it’s got quite silly!” Then it started to add a bit of Dungeons and Dragons action and, though I don’t think it had anything directly related, some feel of both Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the bad part of Campbell’s Invaders from the Infinite.

In the first book, Bruno is called from his home in the sky to help with a problem. The Queen has had her tech wizard and lover (or her other tech wizard and lover, that is) build a Collapsiter Ring around the sun to provide a sort of high-speed beltway around the system: it’s longer, but you go faster. Unfortunately, it’s become unstable (a nod to Niven’s Ringworld?) and is due to crash into the sun soon which, with its being sort of a bunch of black holes, would destroy the sun. After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the second book, Bruno is called back once again, as the Collapsiter is falling into the sun again (this time due to the sabotage of muon contamination undoing the work of book one). After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the third book, the ring is actually destroyed by the saboteur and cleaning up that mess requires several epiphanies and much more.

Basically, the science fictional concepts are wonderful. The style is artful. The situations are good, as well, though the resolutions are poor. It’s all vivid and lively. The characters are interesting. The crown lies heavy on the Queen’s head, Bruno has the weight of the solar system on his somewhat post-existential shoulders and feels like a mere man (and often an inept one) inside, the villain is a thoroughly black-hatted caricature but has some easily recognizable human motivations as the basis for the broad strokes of madness. All this is reason enough to like it as others have and will, but I just didn’t. It felt like some sort of overly-stylized neo-Victorian morality play. Once, early in the book, Bruno is dolled-up by some courtiers and observes himself, thinking his hat was the sort that might have an ostrich feather protruding from it. And this book is wearing just such a hat, when it could have simply worn its propeller-beanie.


[1] There is so much background that there are four appendixes of (in my edition) 31 of the book’s 318 pages, with the first, second, and fourth appendix all being “in character.” The first and fourth include many extracts from, or expansions of, the main narrative, mostly on the tech; the second is a technical glossary; the third is a technical note (the one that’s out of character with equations and references to scientific papers).

4 thoughts on “Review: The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

  1. Going back to feudalism is a common trope, as democracy just didn’t work (at least in those societies). You find it in Dune or in more recent Red Rising. Other, similar forms are the corporate autocracies in cyberpunk. So, I think I can absolutely accept the trope without much disgust.
    Now, do you recommend it or don’t you? I’m confused 😐

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yep, galactic empires, for instance, are usually at least somewhat monarchic or feudal and I often love those. I don’t mind the trope but this book repeatedly made comments that we were scientifically obligated to have the one true political system of monarchy on a biological level which is a whole different thing from just happening to have a monarchy. And, again, this can just be a thought experiment using mistaken characters but the main character was the ultra-genius hero, nobody else expressed the slightest counter-opinion (which isn’t ideal whether an idea is good or bad – someone should have a differing view), and it was in keeping with the whole Victorian feel of the book. Ultra-advanced tech, so without steam, and politically complacent, so without punk, but somehow still steampunk. 🙂

      As far as whether I recommend it, I personally didn’t like it and think there were weaknesses like most of the plot problems being solved by simple “aha!” moments and so on but it was generally well-written so if it sounds like the kind of thing a reader would like then I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it was actually bad and they should avoid it. It’s better than most books but doesn’t rise to the level of recommendation for me. (Sometimes I do recommend things with heavy qualifications in kind of the reverse of this. This one I don’t with heavy positive qualifications.) Anyway, if you’re confused, I guess it came across about right. 😉 It’s a weird book.

      Liked by 2 people

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