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The Collapsium

The Collapsium

by Wil McCarthy


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In the eighth decade of the Queendom of Sol, three commodities rule the day. The first is wellstone, a form of programmable matter capable of emulating almost any substance: natural, artificial, even hypothetical. The second is collapsium, a deadly crystal composed of miniature black holes, vital for the transmission of information and matter — including humans — throughout the solar system. The third is the bitter rivalry between Her Majesty's top scientists.

Bruno de Towaji, famed lover and statesman, dreams of building an arc de fin, an almost mythical device capable of probing the farthest reaches of spacetime. Marlon Sykes, de Towaji's rival in both love and science, is meanwhile hard at work on a vast telecommunications project whose first step is the construction of a ring of collapsium around the sun. But when a ruthless saboteur attacks the Ring Collapsiter and sends it falling into the sun, the two scientists must put aside personal animosity and combine their prodigious intellects to prevent the destruction of the solar system... and every living thing within it.

About The Collapsium:

“Ingenious and witty . . . as if Terry Pratchett at his zaniest and Larry Niven at his best had collaborated.”—Booklist

"Fresh and imaginative. From a plausible yet startling invention, McCarthy follows the logical lines of sight, building in parallel the technological and societal innovations. 'Our Pick.' I wanted to visit this Queendom and meet these people."—Science Fiction Weekly

"The future as McCarthy sees it is a wondrous place. While there are amusing attributes and quirks to McCarthy's characters, the greater pleasures of this novel lie in its hard science extrapolations. McCarthy plays us his technical strengths by providing a useful appendix and glossary for the mathematically inclined reader." —Publishers Weekly

"[McCarthy] studs his narrative with far-out scientific concepts that he defends in a series of appendices. He certainly has a sense of humor. [Protagonist] Bruno de Towaji . . . is surely speaking for his creator when he assures another character, 'Imagination really is the only limit.'"—The New York Times

About Wil McCarthy:

"McCarthy is an entertaining, intelligent, amusing writer, with Heinlein's knack for breakneck plotting and, at the same time, Clarke's thoughtfulness."—Booklist

“‘Imagination really is the only limit.’”—The New York Times

“The future as McCarthy sees it is a wondrous place.”—Publishers Weekly

"A bright light on the SF horizon.”—David Brin

“Wil McCarthy demonstrates that he has a sharp intelligence, a galaxy-spanning imagination, and the solid scientific background to make it all work.”—Connie Willis

“In nearly every passage, we get another slice of the science of McCarthy’s construction, and a deeper sense of danger and foreboding... McCarthy develops considerable tension.”—San Diego Union-Tribune

“An ingenious yarn with challenging ideas, well-handled technical details, and plenty of twists and turns.”—Kirkus

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982124496
Publisher: Baen
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Engineer/Novelist/Journalist/Entrepreneur Wil McCarthy is a former contributing editor for WIRED magazine and science columnist for the SyFy channel (previously SciFi channel), where his popular "Lab Notes" column ran from 1999 through 2009. A lifetime member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, he has been nominated for the Nebula, Locus, Seiun, AnLab, Colorado Book, Theodore Sturgeon and Philip K. Dick awards, and contributed to projects that won a Webbie, an Eppie, a Game Developers' Choice Award, and a General Excellence National Magazine Award. In addition, his imaginary world of "P2," from the novel Lost in Transmission, was rated one of the 10 best science fiction planets of all time by Discover magazine. His short fiction has graced the pages of magazines like Analog, Asimov's, WIRED, and SF Age, and his novels include the New York Times Notable Bloom, "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium (a national bestseller), and To Crush the Moon. He has also written for TV, appeared on The History Channel and The Science Channel, and published nonfiction in half a dozen magazines, including WIRED, Discover, GQ, Popular Mechanics, IEEE Spectrum, and the Journal of Applied Polymer Science.

Previously a flight controller for Lockheed Martin Space Launch Systems and later an engineering manager for Omnitech Robotics and founder/president/CTO of RavenBrick LLC, McCarthy now writes patents for a top law firm in Dallas. He holds patents of his own in 7 countries, including 29 issued U.S. patents in the field of nanostructured optical materials.

Read an Excerpt

in which an

important experiment

is disrupted

In the eighth decade of the queendom of Sol, on a miniature planet in the
middle depths of the Kuiper Belt, there lived a man named Bruno de Towaji
who, at the time of our earliest attention, was beginning his 3088th
morning walk around the world.

The word "morning" is used advisedly here, since along the way he walked
through the day and night and back again without pausing to rest. It was a
very small planet, barely six hundred meters across, circled by an even
tinier "sun" and "moon" of Bruno's own design.

Walk with him: see his footpath cutting through the blossomy mea-
dow, feel the itch of pollens in your eyes and nose. Now pass through into
the midday forest, with its shafts of sunlight filtering warmly through
the canopy. The trees are low and wide, citrus and honeysuckle and
dogwood, not so much a shady, mushroom-haunted wilderness as a compromise
with physical law--taller trees would reach right out of the troposphere.
As it is, the highest limbs brush and break apart the puffy summer clouds
that happen by.

Pass the Northern Hills; watch the stream trickle out between them; see
the forest give way to willows at its bank. The bridge is a quaint little
arch of native wood; on the far side lie the grasslands of afternoon, the
vegetable gardens tended by stoop-backed robots, the fields of wild barley
and maize tended by no one, lit by slantwise rays. Behind you, the sun
dips low, then slips behind the planet's sharply curved horizon. Despite
the refraction of atmospheric hazes, darkness is sudden, and with it the
terrain growsrocky--not jagged but hard and flat and boulder-strewn,
dotted with hardy Mediterranean weeds. But here the stream winds back
again, and as evening fades to night the channel of it widens out into
cattail marshland and feeds, and finally, into a little freshwater sea.
Sometimes the moon is out, drawing long white reflections across the
silent water, but tonight it's only the stars and the Milky Way haze and
the distant, pinpoint gleam of Sol. All of history's down there; if you like,
you can cover the human race with your hand.

It grows colder; realize the planet shields you from the little sun--
the only local heat source--with the deadly chill of outer space so close
you could literally throw a rock into it. But the beach leads around to
twilight meadows, and the horizon ruddies up with scattered light,
and then suddenly it's morning again, the sun breaking warmly above
the planet's round edge. And there is Bruno's house: low, flat, gleam-
ing marble-white and morning-yellow. You've walked a little over two

Such was Bruno's morning constitutional, very much like all his others.
Sometimes he'd fetch a coat and take the other route, over the hills, over
the poles, through cold and dark and cold and hot, but that was mainly a
masochism thing; the polar route was actually shorter, and a good deal
less scenic.

He'd already eaten breakfast; the walk was to aid his digestion, to
invigorate his mind for the needs of the day: his experiments. The front
door opened for him. Inside, robot servants stepped gracefully out of his
way, providing a clear path to the study, bowing as he passed, though he'd
told them a thousand times not to. He grumbled at them wordlessly as he
passed. They didn't reply, of course, though their bronze and tin-gray
manikin bodies hummed and clicked with faint life. Mechanical, unburdened
by imagination or want, they were utterly dedicated to his comfort, his

Another door opened for him, closed behind him, vanished. He waved a hand,
and the windows became walls. Waved another, and the ceiling lights
vanished, the floor lights vanished, the desk and chairs and other
furnishings became optical superconductors: invisible. Projective
holography created the illusion of his day's apparatus: fifty collapsons,
tiny perfect cubes visible as pinpoints of Cerenkov light, powder-blue and
pulsing faintly, circling the holographic planet in a complex dance of
swapping orbits.

He'd spent the past week assembling these, after his last batch had gone

Assembling them? Certainly.

Imagine a sphere of di-clad neutronium, shiny with Compton-scattered
light. It's a sort of very large atomic nucleus; a billion tons of normal
matter crushed down to a diameter of three centimeters so that the protons
and electrons that comprise it are bonded together into a thick
neutron paste. Left to itself it would, within nanoseconds, explode back
into a billion tons of protons and electrons, this time with considerable outward momentum. Hence the cladding: crystalline diamond and fibrediamond and then crystalline again, with a bound layer of well-stone on top. Tough stuff indeed; breaking the neutrons free of their little jail was difficult enough that Bruno had never heard of its
happening by accident.

These "neubles" were the seeds of seeds--it took eight of them, crushed
unimaginably farther, to build a collapson--and the little "moon" was
actually just Bruno's storage bin: ten thousand neubles held together
by their own considerable gravity. Another fifteen hundred formed
the core of the tiny planet, a sphere about half a meter across, with a
skeleton of wellstone built on top of it, fleshed out with a few hundred
meters of dirt and rock and an upper layer neatly sculpted by robots and


Hmm. Bantam has asked me to spice up this newsletter with something fun, interesting and unique, about my two Bantam Spectra novels, THE COLLAPSIUM and THE WELLSTONE. Or about science and technology and their impact on human affairs ("like the stuff you do for WIRED and the SciFi channel, Wil."). But you know, that's the sort of writing I do every day. That's my job. Well, that and engineering; over the years I've worked on robots and rockets, lasers and satellites, quantum dots and programmable matter, and even some secret stuff I can't tell you about. People do seem to find these subjects interesting, but I've written all about them for years and years. Read my novels if you want that stuff. That's what hard science fiction is for.
But what's really on my mind right now -- and on a lot of other minds out there, I'm sure -- are the basics of daily life: love, sex, food, death, home improvement, and the raising of children. I have two kids of my own, and yeah, they're a handful. And no, I can't think of anything I'd rather be than their daddy. It's a title I'll hold until the day I die, and indeed, there's nothing like a birth or two to remind you -- albeit pleasantly -- of your own mortality.
Like most people, I feel my life could be better in a number of particulars. But one thing about real life is that "better" usually gets steamrollered by "good enough." I've lived in the same house for 13 years now, not because it's my dream house but because it was the finest I could afford at age 23, and since then I've had no compelling reason to move. But now the kids are getting bigger, my wife and I are feeling restless and cramped, and theHouse on the Hill we've been staring up at for years just went on the market. And we're buying it, though the cost is dear. Like anything worth having, houses are always too expensive.
Is there anything more romantic and terrifying than purchasing a piece of the Earth? Is there anything quite as cleansing as a move? You pack up all the things you love, throw away all the things you don't, and when you're done the view outside the window is different. Hopefully better, but definitely different.
When there are children involved, you can't help wondering if you're doing the right thing. Is this better for them? Is it worse? Is it good enough? Kids are adaptable -- they'll slot right into any environment and call it normal -- but we all remember the way we ourselves grew up. We're anxious to give our children the same opportunities we had, and to shelter them from the problems we suffered through. Each generation finds its own answers, and each one gets it wrong in various ways which then crystallize the resentments of the next generation. And so it goes -- one way or another, we're definitely screwing our kids. But we mean well, and in the end that's all the little bastards can ask for.
This, by the way, is what my books are about: Life. People. Moving on. Solutions which bring fresh problems. Oh, sure, I love the eye candy, the brain candy. I throw in some quantum gravity, a space battle or two, and a bit of "wellstone" programmable matter (which really is cool stuff -- look it up if you're interested). These keep the story hopping, which is good because a brisk plot is important to me. They also give readers a bit more to think about than a mainstream novel really allows. But "hard science fiction" can be an intimidating label, because in addition to providing outlandish stories which could maybe actually happen, it can sometimes obscure the things that matter even more. If you ask me, any honest story is, at heart, a reexamination of our own humanity -- our love, sex, food, death, homes and families -- in a fun, fresh context. Or why bother telling it at all? Laser beams are cool, but what we really care about are the people who use them, or get shot by them, or whatever. Why do they need a laser? How are they going to get power for it, and are they going to die or maybe have sex? That's drama. That's what great fiction is all about. And mine, too! <wink>
-- Wil McCarthy, November 2002