Book review: Michael Basnett – Sparklers

Adam Roberts @ 07-10-2009

The Adam Roberts Project

Michael Basnett, Sparklers (ILT Books, 2003)

[pp.757. $24.95. ISBN: 723483445127]

Readers may remember Canadian writer Basnett from his Substars trilogy (Density, the second volume of which, was nominated for the De Granville Prize). Sparklers is a fat stand-alone volume in the same mode, which is to say it is a fast-paced galactic space opera with an ingenious central premise and occasional moments of poetry. Basnett is quickly becoming a writer worth noticing.

This novel is set in a galactic community of several thousand worlds linked by trade, and by war. The trade is mostly of artworks, which leads to an oddly distorted economic situation. Planets, in Basnett’s view, will always be self-sufficient, and there will be no economic incentive to schlep raw materials, goods or services through deep space. But art, on the other hand, is a much less ubiquitous commodity. His warring clans of future-humans define themselves by their aesthetic affiliation, and the novel opens in the middle of a war between the powerful sects of ‘realists’ and ‘conceptualists’. Perhaps this sounds arbitrary and rather bloodless, but Basnett manages to flesh out his cultures well enough, giving them a convincing tang of actuality.

The key premise of Sparklers, from which the novel gets its title, is of a new weapon being developed (and, later in the book, being deployed in a series of deep space engagements) by Realist high command—black-hole bombs. Books one and two of the novel show this new megaweapon being developed—a well-handled pastiche of the Manhattan project. Basnett’s scientists are alarmed at the destructive potential of this device but nonetheless exhilarated by the science work in secret to develop it.

The ‘sparklers’ are developed from one aspect of the faster-than-light travel that binds Basnett’s galactic community together. FTL distorts space-time, stretching several of the key ‘constants’ of reality. As a spin-off of her research, an eminent lightspeed scientist called Gabriele Anna invents a way of reorienting the vector of gravity. Instead of acting at ninety-degrees to matters (such that our experience of gravity on this clump of matter called the Earth is that it pulls everything towards the centre of the globe, and sticks us to the surface)—instead of this, she is able to reorient the vector by ninety-degrees. If this were to happen to us on our world, our walls would become our floors and our floors our walls, if you see what I mean; the world would change from being a flat plane to being a gigantic cliff-face.

Inevitably, Annan’s ideas are taken up by the military. A small probe is loaded with ‘grav-virus’, a “fractal replicant that catastrophically reconfigures the vector of gravity.” This reconfiguration lasts only seconds, but that’s all that’s needed. Dropped into the sheer gravity well of a black hole, the probe liberates all the matter and all the energy squashed into that awesome cosmic phenomena. The black hole literally explodes, pouring out everything that it had previously hoarded, with a titanic destructive capacity.

This is a cool idea, and some of Basnett’s description of the first test firing, and of the early stages of the war, evokes an appropriate sense of wonder. He’s also good, if perhaps a little predictable, on the dynamic of military society; the way the senior soldiers become in effect addicted to this new weapon. Black hole bombs, we might say, are the ultimate in shock and awe. One seven-star general can hardly keep the glee from his voice as he explains it:

Because gravity is shifted, momently, through ninety-degrees the holding force of the black hole disappears. It spins out like a gigantic cosmic Catherine-wheel, spitting matter and light in huge expanding corona (depending on the direction of spin of the original black-hole). This matter travels with such force and speed—because the pressures that had been squashing it to a less-than-atom-pinhead were so vast—that it distorts, it approaches light speed, it expands relativistically. Anything within several light years will be obliterated; enemy fleets, stations, planets, stars.

The larger story of Sparklers balances the military side of the war with a group of attractively characterised archaeologists. It’s interesting to reflect that contemporary SF seems to have a particular fascination with archaeologists: Jack McDevitt, Al Reynolds, Richard Morgan, all have built recent space-opera around these people. Basnett’s twist on the venerable idea is to posit ‘light-archaeologists’; not people grubbing around in the dust of ancient ruins, but people painstakingly sifting through the information contained in ancient light. His lead character, Rachel Danchev, specialises in uncovering economic data about the Others, an alien race so long extinct that no physical remains have ever been found, and whose existence can only be deduced from the four-hundred-millions year old lightshells travelling through space. “I spent four years,” Rachel tells her lover, “applying interpretive algorithms of immense subtlety to one promising light shell, following it in jerks in a university liner, and at the end of that time I discovered that the Others had burned hydrogen in their industrial processes. Probably. Four years of my life!” She is disgusted with the slimness of the picking that light-archaeology allows, although her university granted her full-professorship on the basis of her findings.

The black-hole bombs change her life. As she puts it:

Turn a black-hole into a Sparklers—prise the lid from one of those things and what comes out? Matter of course, but also light, in all spectra. Intense radiation of all sorts… Information comes out, information that was buried in a perfectly hermetic cosmic hole for god-knows-how-long. It’s an unbelievably rich stream of data.

The trick is in getting close enough to gather this information without getting so close that the archaeologists get annihilated with everything else. The second trick is in un-distorting the wildly stretched out light-signatures. But the ultra-rationalist Realist high command second her to the military Sparkler-seeder Seven-oh-oh-four.

At this point I felt that Basnett’s novel started to slacken somewhat. Rachel’s romance with the handsome lieutenant Magueijo is by-the numbers. A long sequence detailing a run-in with a Conceptualist battle-fleet, although containing some vivid descriptions of space-war, was something of a foregone conclusion. Not until I was within a couple of hundred pages of the end did the novel pick up speed again, and here Basnett shows considerable technical skill in weaving together all the strands of his story.

Also aboard the Seven-oh-oh-four is senior Realist scientist Narciso, with his team of AI-assisted researchers. Whilst Rachel is working against the clock, and against the grain of military suspicion, to uncover vital facts from the light released by the Sparklers, Narciso is working to make the already appalling weapons even more destructive.

“Searching for vector-180,” he explained in his hypnotic, murmuring voice. The walnut-skin creases on his old face moved slightly, as if he were attempting a smile. Rachel repressed a shudder. His lizard eyes moved back to the screen.”We know its possible, theoretically. Instead of slewing gravity through ninety-degrees, producing a massively spinning radiating object—where much of the destructive force is dissipated by the lateral forces—we should be able to reverse gravity, reverse it wholly. Vector-90 is all very well, but we want vector-180. Turn the gravitational pull of a black hole into an equal-opposite push.”

His eyes were shining.

“That would be a bomb worth building,” he said.

I won’t give away the final twist in Sparklers’ tail; but it is the case that Rachel begins to believe that the light pouring out of the Sparkler she is studying contains within it not only the mystery of the disappearance of the Others, but deeper cosmic mysteries even than that. Accordingly she comes into conflict with a military machine, drunk on destructive power, who start to think not only of defeating the Conceptualists but of wiping them out altogether. The denouement is gripping, the ending satisfying, and Basnett has even left the door open for a possible sequel.

Some of the science seemed, perhaps, a little strained to me. As Rachel moves towards the Big Secret she challenges the conventional notion of galaxy formation.

“Galaxies move so slowly,” she said as Magueijo folded himself into his uniform, “it’s really impossible to tell whether they’re contracting or not. Whether they’re whirlpools of stars with a huge black-hole sink at their core sucking them down the drain—or whether they’re spooling out from some central spinning explosion, like a gigantic Sparkler.”

This gives the game away; but can it really be true that astronomers don’t know which direction galaxies are flowing? Surely they can tell whether they are, so to speak, going down the drain, or flowing up out of one? But this is to niggle. In general Sparklers is gripping, mind-expanding stuff, a deft if somewhat over-long sf story. Basnett is particularly good at balancing the thematic implications of his story: the tension between destruction and creation; his black holes represent death, and he describes his Sparklers by drawing on Biblical imagery of fiat lux, the ultimate creation myth. And he makes the reader think: could it really be that something as apparently simple as tweaking the equation governing gravity could explain the cycle of birth-and-death that governs the whole of creation? Or will this new technology prove a cosmic disaster, spreading through space-time like a disease, unpicking the cohesive force of gravity and turning the whole universe, in time, into a chaotic soup? The transcendental possibilities, and the doomsday scenarios, are both rehearsed by Basnett to brilliant effect. Recommended.

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One Response to “Book review: Michael Basnett – Sparklers”

  1. Chris says:

    Wow. Amazing! Although, I’m not sure that Basnett is on par with previous De Granville winners such as De Selby.