The Collapsium - Wil McCarthy

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Collapsium
Wil McCarthy (Note the single 'l')
Gollancz publishers
ISBN: 1857983262 (Amazon link)

This is a bizarre little gem of a novel. I've been aware of Wil McCarthy since I read Bloom a couple of years ago. I remember it being good, but it didn't make a huge impact on me, and I didn't see anything else of his for some time. A short while ago another poster to rec.arts.sf.written described The Collapsium as being like injecting fun into his brain; later that week I saw a paperback and added it to the To-Read pile. So glad I did...

This novel is about the very cutting edge of physics/material science. It's based around the manipulation of exotic states of matter - wellstone is programmable matter, where atoms can be made from any particle, collapsium is composed of miniature black holes held in a matrix and persuaded to behave like giant elementary particles. Sounds like Greg Egan territory right? Dry, emotionless science, interesting in its own way, but maybe not such a good choice for a novel. I mean, this book has appendices. And a glossary. Got to be hard going, surely?

Nope. From the very start you know you're in for a treat. Let's call this "mannerist SF" as it starts with a lovely chapter heading: "In which an important experiment is disrupted". (I have a weakness for such affected chapter titles)

The first chapter follows our hero, Bruno de Towaji, as he sits on his artificial world, orbited by his own artificial sun and moon. He's living alone there, working on his experiments. He's a genius you see. However, he has a colorful past, being the ex-consort of the Queen of the Queendom of Sol. Oh, and Bruno's ridiculously rich as he invented a system of matter transmitters which span the solar system, allowing instant travel, manufacture of anything you might ever need, and, er, virtual immortality on travellers... He of course suffers the usual mild autism of the physics genius, being uncomfortable with people and smalltalk, but is nonetheless very successful at courtly manners when it suits him. Such a superman would be insufferable in other novels, but here the complex character of Bruno is immensely enjoyable.

Of course he's not very real, existing only to let the author expound on the possibilities on exotic materials, but unlike Egan I could read this forever, for the baroque and whimsical nature of the court which Bruno orbits is the perfect counterfoil to the deadly serious extrapolations of physics. (Well, there's more hand-waving on display here than I've ever seen, but it all sounds plausible enough. My PhD in physics had me saying, "But, hmm..." a few times, but the rest of my brain clubbed that over-educated and frankly uppity bit to death to avoid spoiling the fun for everyone else).

Oh, there's a story too. Kidnapping, murder, the death of an entire solar system by sabotage of a Big Not-Dumb Object around it. The usual. Exists mainly to give you something to follow while the real fun happens, and as an excuse to have our Einstein/McGuyver invent new toys.

The novel has a curious structure, and if it wasn't after 1am on a worknight I'd Google to see if it has a history as a set of short stories - the copyright page gives nothing away. This doesn't really detract from the fun though.

I'll be looking out for more McCarthy titles; this book is the most fun I've had in ages.

Posted: Thu - February 20, 2003 at 11:30 PM