(cover image from Amazon.com)
The Collapsium (2000) is the first in Wil McCarthy's Queendom of Sol series. I've only read the first two (I'm rereading them in preparation for the third and fourth volumes), but they seem to be a throwback to the classic era, being optimistic hard SF.
I really miss that old... engineering mindset, where the heroes know how to find solutions to problems. Yet in characterization, in insight, this is very much a modern book. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best of both worlds.
It's the future - still in the 'third millenium,' but that's the only clue we're given - and technological advances have created a near utopia, not just on Earth, but elsewhere in our solar system. We're terraforming Mars and Venus. We're tinkering with black holes. We've even conquered old age and death - at least, effectively so, most of the time.
But human beings remain human beings. And even immortality has its drawbacks.
Bruno de Towaji is working alone on a miniature artificial planet (he walks entirely around the world for his morning constitutional) lit by a miniature artificial sun, when he's interrupted by the queen of Sol. There's been an industrial accident which threatens to destroy the Sun.*
A couple of things here: All of this sounds very plausible in the book. There are appendices and even a glossary, explaining such things as collapsium (an array of black holes) and wellstone (programmable matter). They certainly seem plausible.
Of course, most of it goes right over my head. But that's actually an advantage, I'm sure. If you're a theoretical physicist, it might seem like pure bull. But McCarthy makes it sound very plausible to a layman like me, and that's the important thing here.
Secondly, yes, the Earth has a queen. It turned out, as civilization advanced, that people hated self-responsibility. "Only when it was inescapably universal... did it become clear that what people really wanted, in their secret hearts of hearts, was a charismatic monarch to admire and gossip about and blame all their problems on."
Normally, I'm quite skeptical of futuristic science fiction with hereditary aristocracies (admittedly, that's not quite the case here). And I can't really buy McCarthy's description of how the Queendom came about. But it works here - mostly, I think, because it's our own celebrity culture writ large.
I've never understood our fascination with celebrities, but I can't deny that widespread interest. And McCarthy really makes it work. Queen Tamra is the ultimate celebrity, with little real power but the continuous focus of intense interest.
Anyway, Bruno is pulled back to society to solve an engineering problem, basically (though one which threatens all of humanity). But, eventually, it becomes clear that this disaster - and the succeeding disasters - aren't accidents, but deliberate sabotage and murder.
I won't say much about that, except that it's exciting. Bruno is a genius, solving problems implausibly fast, but he's up against an enemy almost as capable as he is, who's had a long time to plan this attack. But Bruno is also an interesting character - and an appealing one. The book is lots of fun.
I mentioned insights, and there are. I've already noted the insights into celebrity culture, but there's also the problem with immortality. If people don't die, if people stay young and don't retire, then no one can move up. Your boss is always your boss - forever.
Bruno asks how a police lieutenant rose to his position. But you don't rise to positions in the Queendom. The lieutenant was appointed directly to his position, from more than 7000 applicants, on the basis of exam scores and aptitude. He doesn't expect promotion, because his superiors will never die. He could lose his position for poor performance, but there's no expectation of advancement for anyone.
That issue is addressed more extensively in the next book, The Wellstone, which I liked even better than this one. (That was actually the first book I read of this series. Since the main characters are different, that was no problem.) Well, I plan to reread that one and review it, too, eventually.
There's a lot we don't see of ordinary society in this book, but I get the feeling that there isn't any 'ordinary' society, not really. In Eric Flint's 1632 series of alternate history, modern Americans all act like nobility to 17th Century Europeans. Similarly, the Queendom feels like a place where no one is 'ordinary,' as we'd recognize it.
To our minds, it would be a utopia, just like modern American society would probably seem like a utopia to most of our ancestors. But these people in our future still have problems, just like we still have problems. That seems realistic to me. We're never going to live in a utopia, because we won't recognize it as a utopia.
But the Queendom is a fascinating place! It's imagining futures like this that got me hooked on science fiction in the first place.
* PS. According to Wikipedia, the first part of The Collapsium is based on McCarthy's short story, "Once Upon a Matter Crushed."
PPS. Note that I review the sequel, The Wellstone, here.