Books : reviews

Wil McCarthy.
Flies from the Amber.
Roc. 1995

Wil McCarthy.
Murder in the Solid State.
Tor. 1996

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 23 December 1998

David Sanger is a young nanotechnology researcher, off to a conference to give a paper about his latest inventions. But things start to go very wrong: his arch enemy assaults him, and is later found murdered, with David as prime suspect. Then someone trashes his lab and steals all his work. David must race to find the solution before he too ends up dead.

We get a good view of a nearish-future world, where technology is omnipresent, and where an over-protective government, influenced by the Gray Party vote, is stifling most peoples' lives, without really solving any social problems (but the politics is a bit too heavy handed). We get lots of nice details of nanotechnology, of how the machines are built, how they work and what they are for. The rivalry between the 'mechanical' and 'biological' approaches is key, with our hero dismissively referring to the exponents of the latter as playing origami with pond slime. And we get some fun scenes in a full immersion VR game. But the murder mystery part doesn't fully gel for me.

Wil McCarthy.
Del Rey. 1998

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 13 June 2004

Twenty years after nanotech ran riot and engulfed the inner solar system, the remnant of humanity are living scattered in the asteroid belt and on moons of Jupiter, fighting a daily battle against the self-replicating "spores" that drift that far. There's a plan to send a ship back to earth, to land probes at its poles, to broadcast a warning if the replicators ever manage to live in the cold. A motley crew is assembled and dispatched. But before they even leave, it is clear some other people have very different agendas for the voyage.

This is a great story of the aftermath of the ultimate "grey goo" terror, which still manages to be relatively optimistic. There's some nice bits about nanotech, quite a lot about cellular automata (although I'm not entirely sure if McCarthy is trying to make a specific point about Strasheim's inability to make a long-lived CA), fun descriptions of the "ladder-down technology", and a very good evocation of the claustrophobic atmosphere in the tiny spacecraft. I like the way the zee-spec technology is handled -- not given too much description or infodumping, just show by people using it naturally in their everyday lives. Good hard SF.

Wil McCarthy.
Hacking Matter: levitating chairs, quantum mirages, and the infinite weirdness of programmable atoms.
Basic Books. 2003

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 3 August 2003

Quantum dots are nanoscale regions, manufacturable with fairly conventional solid state technology, where electrons can be confined to behave like "artificial atoms". McCarthy takes us on a tour of the fascinating physics behind these dots, and some of the wondrous things such artificial atoms could do. Matter containing arrays of such dots could have seemingly magical properties. Moreover, using technology similar to that used to control computer circuits today, the properties of the electron confinement (and hence of the artificial atoms) can be altered, so these properties could be programmable. Matter could change its transparency, thermal and electrical conductivity, stiffness, colour, texture, whatever, effectively instantaneously.

To start with, McCarthy describes the physics behind all this. It's quite deep, and I'm not sure how comprehensible to someone without quite a lot of the background already. But it's clearly explained, with little vignettes from the scientists involved that enliven, but do not overshadow, the technical concepts.

Then McCarthy goes on to explain the consequences of having such programmable matter -- programmable quantum dots woven into a silicon substrate, in a material he calls "Wellstone". Applications range from building materials, transport, smart clothing, to medical. I found this section rather disappointing, after all the early hype, for main two reasons. Firstly, he only talks about end products, with no feel for how you would go about constructing with this material -- can you work it like wood or cloth to build your own smart house or sew your own smart coat? Or are the building and clothing industries of the future going to require fleets of hardware engineers connecting and configuring the dots? And secondly, the applications covered seem a little ... tame. Most seems to be on better heat management in buildings. (All in all, this section felt a little rushed. He has an SF novel, The Wellstone, which he says explores this in more detail: I'll be reading soon, to find out some more applications for this material.)

The subtitle is rather a misnomer, too -- the small section on levitation discusses cars, trains, frogs, and people -- not chairs -- and quantum mirages are covered in a scant few sentences. However, the ideas here, no matter how briefly described, are mind-boggling enough, and so very close on the horizon, that anyone with an interest in just how magical advanced technology can look should read it.

Wil McCarthy.
The Collapsium.
Gollancz. 2000

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 29 January 2004

Bruno de Towaji is a brilliant physicist, living isolated on a small planet is the Kuiper Belt where he can perform his dangerous experiments with collapsed matter without risk to humanity. There he receives a visit from the Queen of Sol, asking his help to save the sun from a ring of collapsium being built to orbit it, that has been damaged. He does so with remarkable ease, several times.

The plot is there mainly to provide a hook for all the wonderful new tech and new physics. And that is truly wonderful: programmable wellstone material, weird gravitational artefacts, zero point vacuum engineering, disassembler/reassembler "fax" machines, enabling copies and remerging of copies of people, ... All this, and more, is weaved through the plot, resulting in a glorious tour through future-hyper-tech. The plot point where de Towaji invents a new form of matter, builds it, designs it into a spacecraft, builds the spacecraft, and zips off to rescue the sun again, all in the space of a few days, is frankly Doc Smith-ian in its chutzpah, but a bit more plausible in its science (for certain flexible values of "plausible"). The bit that worked best for me was the change in people's attitude to death with copies available: like in many modern fantasy tales, death has become a minor inconvenience for the most part, but here with better justification. As for the ability to parallel process your life with the copies when time pressures are severe -- well, I could do with a few, myself!

Great science -- but a bit of a cop-out ending. There's a sequel -- will there be even bigger, even more audacious science in that, or has McCarthy used up all his gravitational physics here? I hope not, but we'll see.

Wil McCarthy.
The Wellstone.
Bantam. 2003

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 29 November 2004

Prince Bascal de Towaji is a poor little rich kid. It's hard to be a teenager in as world with very few children, where no-one gets old, where no-one really dies, where you aren't taken seriously. So he persuades a bunch of other teenagers to rebel, and break out of their summer camp planette where they are being kept out of the way. Using the almost-magical properties of Wellstone material, they fashion a make-shift spaceship, and set out to escape. Conrad is one of the gang, initially enthusiastic, but after a few outrageous incidents, he does begin to wonder if Bascal is entirely sane...

This didn't work so well for me as The Collapsium, because it isn't so focussed on the imaginative science and technology, but more on the rather unpleasant central character of Bascal. However, the discussion of how life has to change to accommodate a world of near-immortals, and the merging of parallel-living copies, is interesting. The whole book is topped and tailed with a couple of chapters that are clearly there for the sequel, but the rest of the story is self-contained.

Wil McCarthy.
Lost in Transmission.
Bantam. 2004

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 15 July 2005

The rebellious children have been exiled to Barnard's Star for their part in the Revolt. There they find the adventure and opportunities they craved as children. But they don't have the population or the resources to maintain their high tech base. In particular, the fax plates begin to wear out, and can't be replaced fast enough. People begin to grow old. People begin to die. King Bascal and Chief Architect Conrad find themselves at odds again.

I was a bit wary of this, thinking it would be another story of petulant teens. But the kids grow up quickly -- and in fact soon become hundreds of years old. The tale of the slowly failing tech base, again alongside the illustration of what living for an arbitrarily long time might feel like, is very well done, in a rather downbeat way. The strain of living forever is made to feel almost unbearable, but the rediscovery of death is a real tragedy.

Again, the book is topped and tailed with a couple of chapters that follow on from those teasers in the previous book, paving the way for what I presume is the ending of the next one.

Wil McCarthy.
To Crush the Moon.
Bantam. 2005

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 20 September 2012

The previous two books in this series have has "teaser" chapters hinting at a very different future for the solar system than the stories' current Queendom of Sol. Here that future gets explained and described. The first half of the book follows the return of Conrad and his crew to Earth, the problems of gross overpopulation resulting from immorbidity that they find their, and King Bruno's audacious idea to solve the problem. The plan works to some degree, but the arrival of further failed colonists hastens the collapse of the Empire. The second half moves straight to the time of the teaser chapters, in a post double-collapse, greatly reduced, but still high-tech future, itself now under threat from an ancient enemy. The few remaining Oldsters are looked on with deep suspicion, but may be the only ones who can save humanity from annihilation.

This is still a world of fantastic science, which is now just commonplace engineering, and well-worn: it feels as if the whole solar system is just very weary. Characters have lived millennia, and seen empires rise and then inevitably fall, despite, or maybe because of, their best efforts. There is a real feeling of entropy here: the strain of living forever just seems to get worse, but it's still better than the alternative, it seems.

There is a satisfying conclusion to the threat that has been so long foreshadowed. And then there is a post-conclusion, that comes seemingly from nowhere, and changes everything again. I can't work out whether that spoils the whole "decline and fall" feel of the series, or whether is shows that you can never predict what will happen next, and life does not have a tidy closed conclusion.

Wil McCarthy.
Aggressor Six.
Roc. 1994

Wil McCarthy.
The Fall of Sirius.
Roc. 1996