by Wil McCarthy
428 pages, Bantam
Review by Kate Kasserman
For a book set several centuries in the future, The Collapsium is remarkably old-fashioned. What is unusual, and a pleasant surprise, is the old upon which it was fashioned: I don’t know whether this was by intent, but it is very like the overheated pulps of the 1940s. Not an homage, not an updating – just the same sort of spirit, but in a modern book. Characters are Broad, ideas are Plentiful and Large (and land o’ mercy, is there ever some science-nerd wonkery in here), consistency is…you know, it is best just to roll with it. It’s about the coolness, not about filling in the blanks. Characters are types (happily, they are rather odd types), and there is never the slightest doubt that the White Hats are going to come out on top. Even if hundreds of millions of people die along the way, which, whoa, they do.
Our hero is Bruno de Towaji, and although he does get a big fight scene near the end, he is far from the oiled-and-shirtless type of sci-fi pulp hero. He is a scientist, and he is socially inept not in the “What? Do? You? Mean? I! Will! Hit! You!” manner but the more ordinary mega-dork one, where all he wants to do, after becoming fabulously wealthy by making humanity immortal (well, heh, not wholly immortal, as previously referred to) and opening up the solar system to colonization through his inventions, is retreat to a teensy little fortress of solitude he has constructed – his own private mini-planet – and work on some weird, difficult, and probably fairly pointless science experiment (opening a gateway to peek at the end of time – because, you know, It Is There).
What gets the action going is an engineering problem. Heh, that doesn’t sound sexy, but it is an engineering problem that could annihilate the solar system, which is unfortunately as far as humanity has spread, so, you know…it is a big deal. Tamra Lutui, the Queen (we have lapsed to monarchy in the future, I am sorry to say) and de Towaji’s old flame has the temerity to interrupt his solitude and ripple the surface of his physics-contemplating mind because it seems that no one else is quite smart or experienced enough to deal with a super-cool building project that has gone awry (a structure composed of micro black holes, basically, ringing the sun, which will meaningfully increase the speed at which we can transmit communications and material). Which is half-finished and has gone unbalanced. Which means that instead of sitting nicely around the sun, it is falling into it. And I think I mentioned those micro black holes. De Towaji sighs, dusts himself off, and solves ring collapsiter potential disaster #1…but then, lo and behold, disaster #2 follows…and then disaster #3. No, it is not just silly engineering oopsies like all projects run into from time to time. It is a saboteur. And that is all I shall say about that, although you won’t have trouble guessing the culprit (nor do I believe are you intended to). We know de Towaji’s brain is BIG – but is it big ENOUGH? Nerd-fight! Along the way, there is much strangeness, which keeps the story engaging even though the central plot is fairly light.
If you remember the original Star Trek series, you probably also remember that transporters “beamed” people around by…ack…actually DESTROYING the original and reconstituting it at the desired destination. Well, that is the kind of immortality we have in The Collapsium – people fax themselves wherever they want to go (and as with the faxes with which we are familiar, both a send and receive station are required), and when they step into a fax, zoop, they are poofed out of existence and reduced to a pattern, and then that pattern poofs a new “them” at the other side. Because the pattern is storable, people can run off as many copies as they like of themselves. And if someone dies, a backup is poofed into existence and can be off and running, albeit with a slight memory gap. (That is what is behind the real deaths late in the book; it isn’t just the bodies being variously destroyed, nobody cares about THOSE old things: it is the patterns that are annihilated, and there’s no coming back from that.)
So it is a strange sort of immortality, one that dispenses with continuity, and that raises far more questions than are answered or even referred to glancingly in the book. For example, one of the obvious aspects – what does one do with all those me-copies – does get answered: the designated original has absolute power of life or death over all copies, and while multiple selves can be “merged” in a fax machine into a new composite self, a copy has no guarantee that it won’t just be…destroyed. Yep, destroyed. The fate of most of ’em. So it is an answer that raises a whole lot more questions.
And that is actually a latent, and rather lovely, theme running through the book. You identify a goal, and you work towards it, and that is fine – but in the process of doing stuff, you churn up all sorts of side consequences. Sometimes what happens on the side is a lot bigger and more interesting, even, than the goal. Sometimes it’s horrible, sometimes fantastic, usually a mix – but it can never be controlled. Even in the future, we’re a long way from that. Dangerous, yes – but our only real hope, too.