I discovered Collapsium by Wil McCarthy in a backwards sort of way. I first bought Nebula-nominated To Crush the Moon–the fourth book in this tetralogy–off the staff recommends shelf of a local bookstore. It wasn’t until I got To Crush the Moon home that I realized I needed to start much earlier. Even more surprising, Collapsium was out of print… though found easily enough on eBay.
How can the first book in a series go out of print when its fourth and final installment gets a Nebula nod? (Though Collapsium has since come back in print.) The book’s cover shows a serious man in a spacesuit that gives the book that hard-science-fiction feel. And in a sense, Collapsium is hard science fiction. McCarthy was once a rocket scientist (really) and his novel comes complete with glossary and appendices to explain how everything in the book might actually happen… such as matter that can take on any form, spaceships that can grab hold of the sun and push, and fax machines that can send people hither and thither–or make copies of them–on a whim.
But such technical details and the book’s cover give a poor impression of this novel. What makes it most interesting are its characters. They’re immortal, yes, but unlike most immortals in fiction seem to have actually lived long enough to get bored. They’re characters in both senses of the word. The lead Bruno de Towaji, a brilliant scientist and the richest man in the queendom, builds his own world to take up a hermetic residence where he can experiment with heavy matter unencumbered by the niceties of polite society. Tamra-Tamatra Lutui, the Virgin Queen of All Things, spends much time thinking of fashion, while not burdened by the pomp and ceremony demanded by her crown. Monarchy is back, as the world finally realized it is humanity’s natural state. We’re much happier when we have someone else to blame for all our problems.
The story is a bit disjointed. It’s broken into three sections that come to conclusions a bit too abruptly, but overall Collapsium was a highly rewarding journey, surprisingly thought provoking. What would it be like to live as multiple copies only to suddenly be reduced to a single copy… one that could be killed no less? Or Hugo the robot, who is set free only to become “helpless and confused, in an environment beyond its comprehension” according to Queen Tamra. (He spends much of his time crawling on the floor saying “Meow.”) She is placated by Bruno: “Life is nothing more than the choices thrust upon us when ability and incident collide.” Could anything more perfectly detail the trappings of free will?