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The Collapsium
Wil McCarthy
Del Rey Books, 325 pages

The Collapsium
Wil McCarthy
Wil McCarthy was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1966. In 1984, he moved to Boulder, Colorado, to attend the University of Colorado. He worked as an aerospace engineer for the Lockheed Martin Corporation in Denver, designing satellite orbits for the Titan series of rockets for NASA and the Department of Defense. He is now a robotics engineer at Omnitech.

Wil McCarthy Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Bloom
SF Site Review: Bloom
Review: The Collapsium
Review: The Collapsium
Review: Fall of Sirius
Omnitech
The zero-point field theory: does the zitterbewegung wag the dog?

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Peter D. Tillman

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The Collapsium opens with a wonderful novella, "Once Upon a Matter Crushed" (first published in SF Age 5/99). In the late 25th century, in the 8th decade of the Queendom of Sol, gravitation and the zero-point field are pretty well understood. "Neubles," diamond-clad neutronium spheres, are in everyday use -- a standard industrial neuble masses a billion tonnes, and has a radius of 2.67 cm. Our hero, wealthy super-scientist Bruno de Towaji, is experimenting with collapsium, a dangerous, metastable material made of proton-size black holes, when he receives a Royal Summons: the new near-solar collapsiter ring is unstable, and will fall into the sun (and eat it) unless something is done...

The story is written in an engaging neo-Victorian style -- McCarthy's first experiment with literary style versus his previous 'transparent' prose. I liked it. Witty repartee, amusing pratfalls and shrewd insights abound. Bruno meets a well-married couple at a celebrity fund-raiser on Maxwell Montes, Venus:

"The love, shyness and exasperation between them radiated out in invisible rays, like infrared. Warming."
Befuddled by a bottomless beer mug, Bruno warms to the pitch:
"Would, ah, would a hundred trillion dollars be enough?"
McCarthy's sci-tech extrapolation is exotic, fun and reasonably plausible. He's clearly done his homework -- the book includes 30 pages of appendices, a glossary, technical notes (including the working equations to synthesize neubles), and respectable references. Fun stuff (really!) -- one of the highlights of the book.

The range and depth of McCarthy's imagined technologies are dazzling -- I'm reminded of Eric Drexler's pioneering "Engines of Creation," and I hope McCarthy (or someone) does a speculative science article on the technological implications, if the zero-point field explanation for gravity turns out to be correct. (If you've seen one, I'd appreciate hearing about it.) Lots more neat SF ideas where these came from...

So I was really pumped, reading the first hundred pages -- cool science, nice style, nifty characters, a big-screen space-opera storyline. What's not to like?

Well, the rest of the book? The first thud comes when Bruno is recalled to the inner system -- to fix the same problem again! Then he has to fix it a third time, with even sillier, pulpier results. His scientific competitor, and rival for the Queen's affection, turns out to be a really horrid villain... And the characters are hard to kill, because they have backups, except when they don't -- but wait, maybe they do, after all... And characters start acting, well, out of character. And there's a pointless, dangling subplot, among other loose ends. I suppose McCarthy intended to write a good old-fashioned super-science melodrama, except with real science -- but the last two-thirds of the book just didn't work, for me anyway.

Which is a pity, because "Crushed" is brilliant, and the science is so cool. Oh well -- I'd rather read an ambitious failure than a potboiler. If you're already a McCarthy fan, or crave bleeding-edge hard SF, you won't want to miss The Collapsium -- the good parts anyway. And who knows, your tolerance for melodrama may be higher than mine; other reviewers have been more generous.

But if you're new to McCarthy, I'd start with Bloom or another, earlier book -- and you should try him, he's very good. Usually. Both the Bloom and The Collapsium universes have plenty of room for more stories; maybe next time he should coast a little on the science and work harder on the fiction.

Copyright © 2000 by Peter D. Tillman

Pete Tillman has been reading SF for better than 40 years now. He reviews SF -- and other books -- for Usenet, "Under the Covers", Infinity-Plus, Dark Planet, and SF Site. He's a mineral exploration geologist based in Arizona. More of his reviews are posted at www.silcom.com/~manatee/reviewer.html#tillman .


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