Ace, 2005, 517 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01241-8
Some novels don’t have to be good if they’re completely insane.
Case in point: Robert Metzger’s Cusp, the type of book for which craaazy has been invented.
Consider the prologue: Thunderstorms! Earthquakes! Entire continents torn asunder! One billion deaths! When the dust clears, Earth’s geography has been forever altered: It’s now circled by two massive rings of what looks like reactors, their tip reaching above the atmosphere.
That’s the prologue. Eleven pages into the novel.
Then twenty years years pass before the first chapter begins and things get even craaazier.
Trying to give you an idea of the subsequent plot would be a challenge of van Vogtian proportions, so let me tease you with some buzzwords: Lemur-evolved Aliens. Bill Gates as a dinosaur. Planets used as engineering components. Humans “punching through” the singularity. And many, many more, including familiar SF tropes: Police state America, AI-augmented brains, robot servants, spaceship to Mars, evidence of time-travel, etc. A glossary of terms would have been helpful. Cusp is crammed with cool ideas and big-scale thinking: if only for that, the novel ends up with a marginal recommendation.
But readers may have to struggle through entire chapters of unconvincing developments in order to get to those ideas. One of Cusp‘s most visible signs of craaaziness if how it flips back and forth between a pretty big cast of characters, arbitrarily sending them from one planet to another in order to keep the plot moving forward or sideways. The demands of the plot pieces outweigh the character development: it’s all a frantic rush through five hundred pages.
I have alluded to van Vogt above, and the most pleasing quality of Cusp is indeed the way it never pauses for consideration. Absent an editor and most common-sense, it just keeps slamming along, adding even more elements to the mix regardless of how appropriate they are to the entire story. Sometimes it works: For every few artificial plot point, there are a few spectacular scenes that really focus the novel. A scene in which a woman manages to go post-singular is both vividly described and completely terrifying. Another action set-pieces involves an AI-augmented cop surfing down a rain of debris from an exploding air vehicle. Things turns spectacularly nasty at the end of the book as characters outdo themselves in order to engineer a pre-ordained tragedy. And through it all, readers will be left wondering how much craaazier this is going to get.
The answer is very craaazy. By the time planets are moved around like billiard balls to complete (or thwart) million-year-old plans, veteran SF readers will be too exhilarated to care about the suspicion that the plot makes no sense at all. Rings to move the Earth around? When a simple earthquake can destroy an entire countryside? What’s the point? In many ways, Cusp is high-tech fantasy dressed up in Hard-SF wording. And I’m not even going near the character motivations. Though it is satisfying to see Bill Gates get his head bashed in. Sort of.
(On the other hand, the grimness of the novel almost ends up working against it: You can forgive practically everything to an author who keeps smiling, but it takes a lot more fortitude to stay nice to those who pile bodies up like cord-wood. Not that this is quite Cusp‘s problem, of course…)
In more competent hands, Cusp would have been a blockbuster. In Metzger’s hands, though, all it’s got is its craaaziness. Despite the high-fructose energy of the plotting, the book itself can be tough to read and even harder to follow. This isn’t Metzger’s first novel and it’s not Metzger’s first disappointment either: his Picoverse was similarly dogged by undisciplined writing and outlandish plot developments. Cusp is just a bit better, but still a fair distance away from satisfaction. If seasoned SF readers will stick through it for the cool visuals and the demented plotting, casual readers are likely to swear off the whole thing after a few incoherent pages. I’m not blaming Metzger as much as I’m surprised Ace wasn’t able to find an editor good enough to reign him in. Because, as much fun it is to find van Vogt-level craziness in twenty-first century science-fiction, it would be even better to be able to read a good SF book and not feel guilty about it.