Friday 17 May 2013

Macroscope, by Piers Anthony

Piers Anthony is nowadays best known for his Xanth series of comic fantasies, notable for the most terrible puns in the genre, but he started out writing science fiction with a very distinctive flavour. His first published novel, Chthon (1967) was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Macroscope, unusual for this author in being a stand-alone rather than part of a series, appeared in 1969 and was also nominated for a Hugo in 1970. I read it a couple of times in the 1970s but not since, so I was interested to see how it stood up to the passage of time.

This is far from a straightforward tale, with mysteries emerging on several levels. It is set in a near-future world; there are orbiting space stations but only the space around the Earth and Moon is routinely visited. Ivo Archer, an apparently ordinary young man, is given a mysterious message which prompts him to accept a ride to the Macroscope, an immensely powerful sensor orbiting a million miles away. This acts like a high-powered telescope using “macrons” rather than light waves, and can deliver clear images of life on distant planets.

Ivo has been summoned by his old friend Brad Carpenter, a genius-level scientist in charge of the Macroscope, to try to solve a major problem. The Macroscope had stumbled across an alien signal which appeared to be a teaching aid packed with advanced knowledge. The problem is that it is a lethal trap; people of sufficient intelligence to follow the programme to the end have their minds destroyed. Ivo himself is little more than averagely bright, but he somehow controls access to a super-genius known as Schön, whom Brad hopes can solve the problem.

Ivo himself gradually emerges as the major mystery in the story. He and Brad were both the result of a special project to try to use genetics and advanced educational methods to raise geniuses; Brad was the one major success, Ivo considered a failure. But why does he have childhood memories of pre-civil war America? And exactly how does he control access to Schön? The action moves to the outer reaches of the solar system and then far out into the galaxy as the story tackles some bold and ambitious SF themes before reaching an unexpected conclusion.

This is an intriguing story that takes the time to explore a range of issues on the way, with asides on topics such as space-time, the nature of intelligence, education and even astrology. It also takes the time to build the principal characters thoroughly, quirks and all. This means that the pacing is relatively slow, but it still had sufficient interest to hold my attention; I found it thought-provoking as well as entertaining. Its award nomination was well deserved and SF lost an innovative talent when the author switched to the presumably more profitable comic fantasy. This story still stands up, and I enjoyed reading it again.


Fred said...

I had always considered Macroscope to be Piers Anthony's most significant achievement. SF lost a potentially gifted writer when he went over to fantasy.

I was at an SF convention many years (decades?) ago at which Anthony had an open forum for those there. He began by apologizing to us for switching to fantasy. The reason was solely economic.

Anthony said he could write two or three fantasy novels in the length of time it took him to write one SF novel. Fantasy works also paid better and the fans were more "loyal."

An SF reader would browse one of his works and then decide not to buy it, even though that reader might have read others by him and enjoyed them. Fantasy readers go solely on name recognition. Once they know a writer's name, they will buy anything with his name on it.

At least that was Anthony's thinking at the time.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for that, Fred. It doesn't surprise me at all, but it is rather unfortunate for SF fans.