Bantam Spectra, 1993, 278 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-29921-2
The gradual endangerment of the Science Fiction mid-list over the past decade and a half has already been discussed to death elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it any less important. The conglomeration of publishing under ever-hungrier multinationals has increased the drive for clear profits. Authors who used to sell profitably but not spectacularly have been driven away in the hope of finding strings of best-sellers. This, in turn, has affected what gets into bookstores. Authors are encouraged to do series, to do novelizations, to “co-write” something with a celebrity.
Unfortunately, what has gotten lost in this evolution is what I call the meat-and-potatoes genre novel. The kind of adequate, but unspectacular standalone book that entertains despite not breaking any genre convention. Novels like Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason’s Assemblers of Infinity.
The story is one we’ve seen many times before: Twenty-five years in the future, astronauts on the moon discover a strange alien artifact that is both intriguing and dangerous. People die, scientists are sent to investigate and soon enough, we’re stuck in a race against time, between revelation and annihilation. Simple enough: that Anderson and Beason choose to exploit nanotechnology as the Danger Tech is a sign of the times, but otherwise there isn’t much that’s not instantly recognizable by SF fans.
Not that this is a bad thing: From the opening prologue, in which a discovery turns deadly, fans will slip into Assemblers of Infinity like in an old set of clothes. The technology-heavy vocabulary is familiar. The easy prose is unobtrusive and compulsively readable. The characters are engineers and scientists, bright folks with just enough back-story to avoid charges of cardboard characterization. In short, it’s a perfectly lovely hard-SF story in the Clarke mold, with enough ambiguity to make it interesting: the characters don’t neatly divide in good/bad bins, and that’s already nice enough. In retrospect, few fans will be surprised by the twists and turns taken by Assemblers of Infinity, though there are a number of pleasant developments here and there (much like the authors’ previous Lifeline, which tweaked a few genre conventions by the nose). The somewhat gratuitous suggestion of ESP power is old-fashioned, but not in an intolerable way: Everything ends up fitting together nicely.
Assemblers of Infinity is not meant to be innovative, but comforting. Working away from genre spotlights, the Anderson/Beason team has produced more than half a dozen interesting Hard-SF/techno-thrillers that are well-worth a quick read. Comfort food for the SF audience, meat-and-potatoes novels that are fulfilling but hardly spectacular. And that’s fine, because those mid-pack novels are the true backbone of the genre, the structural blocks that define what people imagine when they think about SF. The genre classics stand out over the background noise that is generated by novels such as this one. Without a strong fuzzy stream of good solid SF novels, there isn’t much of a genre. Assemblers of Infinity may be a middle-of-the-pack book, but there’s no dishonour in that.
Ultimately, this thought brings us back to why the much-heralded “death of the mid-list” hurts the genre. Without a support net of mid-list building blocks, SF is stuck without references, without a way to keep readers from abandoning the genre while waiting for the next Big Thing.
So authors adapt and evolve. Like Kevin J. Anderson, they start massive trilogies and series. They turn to comic-book writing. They shill themselves to cults and celebrities. They write novelizations. They try other genres in the hope that they’ll find a magic formula. But most of all, they stop writing those mid-list novels that define the genre. Assemblers of Infinity may not be publishable today (The Anderson/Beason team has certainly stopped writing anything like it), and that’s a real shame.