Tag Archives: Wil McCarthy

Hacking Matter, Wil McCarthy

Basic Books, 2003, 222 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-465-04428-X

Oh sure, you know all about nanotechnology. The science-fiction you read describes atoms being rearranged all over the place and you’ve already put a pre-order on Amazon for the first prototype of the HomeNano universal assembler brewing kit. Good for you.

But wait a minute: Not only is high-end nanotech a while away from Wal-Mart, it’s not even clear if it will solve everything we expect it to fix: Issues of energy requirements, information transfer, safe control and speed of operation continue to confound even the sharpest thinkers on the subject. Even when you’re done doing all you can, nanotech simply rearranges atoms around; it can’t create new elements and probably will take a while to work.

Programmable matter is something else. A theoretical concept based on real-world research in the strange properties of quantum dots, it bridges the gap between straight-up nanotech and coarser material sciences. In theory, one could end up with a silicon material that could be programmed at will to emulate the characteristics of other elements, maybe even elements we haven’t yet discovered. While the actual real-world implementations of the technology are still a far way away, the theoretical underpinning seem reasonably solid. Hacking Matter is an overview of the subject, from the labs to the theory to the speculations.

Fortunately, a uniquely qualified author is at he helm. Wil McCarthy is best-known in some circles as a capable science-fiction writer, one whose career has progressed from run-of-the-mill SF adventures (Aggressor Six) to meatier fare (Bloom). But McCarthy is also a tech journalist and an engineer and Hacking Matter is the ideal book for someone at the intersection of those three fields: Not only is he capable of vulgarizing the subject matter, he’s able to speculate on where it’s going, and even make useful contributions to the field himself.

After a whiz-bang intro featuring some of the most outlandish speculations about programmable matter (including what happens when you bash artificial iron with a golf club), McCarthy settles down to the painstaking business of explaining the science behind the speculations. Don’t worry if your high-school physics are too far away to be useful; just keep reading until you reach the conclusions. It boils down to an arrangement of silicon in such a way that electrons are made to behave in unnatural ways. How unnatural? Well, unnaturally enough to recreate the properties of other elements that don’t exist. Unnaturally enough to change behaviour at the flick of a switch.

Thanks to descriptions of the Boston-area research centres where this is taking place, interviews with the concerned scientists and the other usual tools of good scientific journalism, McCarthy efficiently illustrates the field’s current state of the art. But the book truly hits its stride when McCarthy-the-journalist cedes the stage to McCarthy-the-SF-writer. After a meaty chapter on how architecture (houses, cities, etc.) will be revolutionized by programmable matter, it’s hard not to wish for these cool toys, right away. There’s more good stuff squirrelled away in the last chapter (along with a comparative examination of other life-altering technologies currently inching out of laboratories), and if you want even more, well, there’s always McCarthy “Queendome of Sol” science-fiction trilogy.

How credible is that stuff? Though it certain sound credible, that’s not neally for me to say. But simply consider this: McCarthy-the-engineer has his name on a patent application for a “Wellstone”. He obviously believes in it, and so do the scientists currently working on the field. (Check the latest version of the “Programmable Matter FAQ” for more details.) The history of science has progressed from far less likely concepts.

And so Hacking Matter remains a tease of bigger things to come; clocking in at 175 pages without appendices and the index, it’s leaves us hanging just as things get interesting. A fitting impression for a book describing cutting-edge tech: How are we going to perceive this book in twenty years? As an overly-optimistic pop-science work, or the first mention of a commonplace technology?

Bloom, Wil McCarthy

Del Rey, 1998, 310 pages, C$24.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-40857-8

Many Science Fiction authors are said to be heir to the grandmasters of the field. People are constantly trying to find “the Next Heinlein”, with the mantle passing from author to author, stopping by such choices as Spider Robinson, John Varley and John Barnes. Wil McCarthy hasn’t widely been recognized as the successor of any Grandmaster, but with Bloom, he evokes fond memories of Arthur C. Clarke’s best travelogues.

Indeed, Bloom begins on Ganymede, an orbit away from Imperial Earth‘s Titan. But where Clarke traveled through a solar system dominated by humans, McCarthy has a much weirder -and dangerous- future in mind.

By design or accident, some nano-critter (“mycora”) has managed to eat Earth in classic gray goo fashion. A small fraction of the human population managed to escape on the moon, and then farther out beyond the asteroid belt when it became obvious that mycora was also taking over the entire inner system. So Bloom opens on a solar system whose inner planets are all inhospitable and where humans are holed up here and there in the outer planets. Still, there are occasional incursions of mycora in the human settlements. There much be fought decisively, or else the bloom replicates until it destroys the habitat.

In the middle of all this, high authorities decide that mycora has to be studied, so they send a starship in the inner system, ostensibly to drop off sensors. Our viewpoint character is John Strasheim, part-time journalist and full-time shoe manufacturer. He’s not the only one to ask himself what he’s doing with the spacemen and scientists making up the remainder of the crew. As they set out for their trip to the inner system, -battling the constant threat of spaceship bloom- the question of whether they can all be trusted is raised, and then precipitated.

The atmosphere of constant paranoia -both external and internal- is part of what makes Bloom so special. The constant threat of mycora when the expedition enters the inner space system is convincingly claustrophobic, creating a real sense of dread for the characters. All of this leads to a few efficient sequences of almost pure terror as all hope seems to be lost and the crew has to fight a seemingly invincible array of threats.

McCarthy sets up his world and his characters effectively, leading up to some interesting situations. The characterization is only adequate, however, as it does take some time to differentiate between the small cast of characters and even then they never really become fully realized. No matter; they’re still serviceable in the usual SF fashion.

There are a lot of cool gadgets in Bloom, (like the tickle implant and the fear dolls) and McCarthy is scientifically-literate, so the jargon sounds right. Though not exactly an ultra-hard-SF novel, Bloom does play according to the rules of the genre, and is more convincing because of it. It simply makes sense, even in the action scenes.

Better yet is the simple, direct and enjoyable prose style of the book. The viewpoint character is a part-time journalist used to writing for a layman audience, and the narrative reflects this superbly. Especially fascinating are the snippets of text sent by Stratheim, balancing humor and fear. (Or unsent; see Chapter 19) The book is compulsively readable… a civilian’s account of combat in deep territory, a Science-Fiction version of APOCALYPSE NOW.

But like APOCALYPSE NOW it’s a slight shame if the conclusion is so disappointing. It would have been interesting to see McCarthy do something more with this predictable finale. As it stands, it’s almost as if McCarthy shies away from really interesting revelations.

Still, Bloom is a pretty good SF novel. Fans of McCarthy won’t be disappointed by this, his best novel so far, and non-fans might take this opportunity to discover an interesting author. A worthwhile choice for a fun, quick, thoughtful and interesting read… just like the best Clarke novels. Definitely a 1998 core-SF essential.

Aggressor Six, Wil McCarthy

ROC, 1994, 253 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45405-7

The Alien, in Science-Fiction, has been a symbol for many things, most of them contradictory. It has gone, from story to story, from ultimate enemy (The War of the Worlds, ALIENS, ID4, The Forge of God) to benevolent friend (ET, Stranger in a Strange Land) while going through stages of Enigmas (Schismatrix), Caricatures of human traits (Star Trek), All-Powerful Guardians (The Ophiuchi Hotline) and everything in between, as needed by the authors. Most of the above-mentioned stories are tales of First Contact and it is in this tradition, more or less, that Wil McCarthy’s Aggressor Six belongs.

Technically, it’s not quite a “first contact” story, given that the first, first contact is vaguely described through flashback. But it’s certainly the account of the first meaningful exchange between humans and Waisters.

But Aggressor Six is also a war novel and it begins as humanity is going down for the count. Human colonies have been implacably destroyed by the Waisters, who are now heading for the solar system. Meanwhile, a team of human experts on Waisters is put together to try to emulate the alien thought processes and find a way to beat the invasion.

It is a miracle that Nietzche’s advice on fighting evil doesn’t figure on the first page of the book, because Aggressor Six is all about Becoming the Alien. That the process is intended by the characters doesn’t make it any easier: The protagonist’s superiors and colleagues are unsettled when he truly begins thinking like the Waisters.

This was Wil McCarthy’s first published novel and it has a few regrettable deficiencies that we can blame on inexperience. For a 250-pages story, it has considerable lengths. Most of the middle section, for instance, is spent in internal monologues and not enough in external action. In his willingness to represent the strangeness of the aliens, McCarthy initially goes too far, eliciting confusion instead of comprehension. This confusion eventually abates, and the conclusion of the novel is well-handled. The aliens might be strange, but they have internal coherence.

The end result is a novel that’s moderately satisfying, though perhaps more worthwhile for a hint of the author’s latter works than the actual narrative. The action scenes are well-done, and McCarthy manages to inject interesting ideas in his First Contact story. The Machine Intelligence sequences are particularly chilling, even though not exactly ground-breaking. Aggressor Six is a cut above the usual ROC material.

Personal Trivia: I happen to remember Aggressor Six as the first novel I’ve seen promoted on the Internet by the author itself. It was, as I recall, in 1994 on rec.arts.sf.written. It took five years, but the promotion effort did pay off!

Murder in the Solid State, Wil McCarthy

Tor, 1996 (1998 reprint), 277 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55392-6

Good examples of Science-Fiction crossed with Crime Fiction are nearly as numerous as crossovers between SF and Thrillers. Many SF authors have written a few mystery novels (Isaac Asimov, Stephen R. Donaldson, etc…) and for some reason, (solidarity among the ghettoes?) readers of SF are often fans of crime fiction. The basic plotline of thrillers, (One man confronting powerful forces conspiring against him!) on the other hand, has always been a natural way to develop the bigger-than nature plots of most grandiose SF. Murder in the Solid State will suck you in with a murder mystery, but ultimately evolves in your basic near-future conspiracy thriller.

It all begins, appropriately enough, at a nanotechnology scientific conference. David Sanger is a young physicist with things to prove to the world. Shortly after the beginning of the conference, he finds himself arguing against a rather unpleasant older scientist widely despised by his peers. Heated words eventually lead to sharp weapons and before long David is sword-fighting (!) against his nemesis. His martial arts training takes over and he wins the fight, but finds himself in custody the following morning as the older scientist is murdered during the night… A hundred pages in the novel, David’s most trusted friends turn against him and he finds himself tangled in something much bigger than just a murder.

In time, the “Solid State” of the title assumes its full political importance and it’s a bit of a surprise to find us cleverly slipped a message about the dangerous implications of comfortable safety. Like many pure-SF writers, McCarthy espouses libertarian (or at least vaguely anti-government) tendencies but exhibits them more carefully than most of his peers.

One of the cover blurbs is James Patrick Kelly saying “Think ‘Hitchcock meets Heinlein’” and the comparison is apt. The narrative is lean and rarely pauses for its breath. The future technology is described plausibly, with some attention for the social impact of said technology. The protagonist is suitably sympathetic, with the result that we keep on rooting for him even as he is forced to commit unpleasant acts. The narration is suitably paced and the reader’s interest rarely flags.

But if Murder in the Solid State is a perfectly competent thriller with the added interest of being peppered with solid nanotechnological details, it’s also obvious that it’s a bit pedestrian, a bit… well… ordinary. After the whirlwind first hundred pages, the novels comfortably settles down in a classical thriller structure, and it doesn’t take a lot of perspicacity to intuit that the protagonist is eventually going to confront the Bad Guy.

But it doesn’t really matter, because even if not every book can be a classic, we can always use another good competent SF adventure. And Murder in the Solid State more than proves that Wil McCarthy is an author worth examining. Who knows what else he’ll come up with next?