James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Cosmic Griefers


By Piers Anthony 

28 Aug, 2016

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

By the time 1970’s Macroscope came out, Piers Anthony was no stranger to Hugo nominations. In 1968, his Chthon was nominated for Best Novel; in 1969, Getting Through University was nominated for Best Novelette. Indeed, 1970 was a banner year for Anthony. Not only did Macroscope get a Best Novel nod (losing to Left Hand of Darkness), he himself was nominated for Best Fan Writer, which presumably ended forever the argument over whether someone can be both a pro and a fan.

How does Macroscope read forty-six years later?

Ivo is the product of a bold experiment, one that tests the limits of directed breeding and specialized upbringing. Poor Ivo seems to be an outlier. Everyone else in his cohort is a genius. Ivo is smart (IQ 125) but apparently not a genius. His only talent seems to be playing games.

Well, except for one other thing.

Ivo’s childhood chum Brad Carpenter needs to get in contact with the reclusive hypergenuis Schön. For reasons having to do with their shared history, Ivo is the only person to whom Schön will respond. Brad is desperate; the future of humanity depends on solving a deadly puzzle and Schön may be the only human able to solve it.

A technological marvel, the orbiting macroscope gave humans the ability to spy across time and space, offering far more detailed information about distant worlds than conventional telescopes ever could. Scientists have discovered world after world abounding with life. Some even had civilizations … in the past. Every civilization found is either declining or extinct. They have all fallen victim to overpopulation and pollution; maladies all too familiar to 20th century scientists1.

There is hope. The macroscope is more than an enabler for cosmic voyeurism. It can also be used to communicate, even if only at the speed of light. This does not allow two-way conversation between worlds separated by many light-years. but it does allow for broadcasting. Some civilizations have sought immortality by broadcasting everything they know to the stars. Surely somewhere in this vast galactic library humans should be able to find the secret to survival.

Someone, something, does not want lesser civilizations to enjoy the shared archive. As unfortunate scientists soon discovered, the most prominent signal is a destructive one, lethal to any genius who exposes himself to it. Only those without the intellectual ability to use the galactic archives can view them safely.

Schön may have a workaround. But amoral, brilliant Schön in control of the archive may be the greatest threat of all.


I was a little alarmed early on when I encountered this passage:

He dreamed of childhood: ten years old in the great city of Macon, population three thousand, three hundred and twenty-three by the latest census, plus a couple thousand blacks.”

Shades of In the Wet, where the Empire keeps two population tallies: the entire population and the whites-only count. As it turns out, Ivo is himself mixed-race, which in the America of whenever-this-is-set means that he is black. He and his fellow Project2 companions may be brainiacs, but that does not mean anyone will rent to him once they see him. Brad, also a product of the research that produced Ivo, is very careful to keep concealed from his Southern girlfriend any hint that he is not lily-white. Eugenics and widespread IQ comparison are an alarming signal of impending racism in old-time SF … but Anthony was at least trying to produce something a bit more complicated than, oh, van Vogt ever did.

This is a puzzle story on a grand scale. Finding a way to circumvent the destroyer and stealing the secret of interstellar travel from the archives is only the first step. The destroyer is not just griefing on a cosmic scale. There’s a reason an ancient civilization thought it would be a good idea to place destroyer broadcast stations aroundthe galaxy; figuring out what that reason might be requires unraveling millions of years of history of intelligent life in the Milky Way.

Unfortunately, the process of getting from the initial question to the final answer is a bit of a mess. Anthony is more impressed with astrology than I am. The characters do not really work out what is going on using their awesome brain power; rather, they are forced to go on the run in the general direction of the plot in a convenient spacecraft of advanced design, When that proves insufficient to the demands of the plot, faster than light travel proves conveniently doable with the resources at hand3. And then there are plot-enabling visions of dubious reality. Anthony’s motto must have been Full speed ahead, damn the implausibility, plot über alles!”

Still, Anthony was at least trying something on a grand scale. I can see why the Hugo voters of 1970 nominated this, even if I can also see why it did not win. If it seems atypically ambitious for an Anthony novel, there’s an unverified anecdote that might explain why: Macroscope took a lot of effort to write. Potboilers like 1977’s A Spell for Chameleon did not. Macroscope, as rumour has it, didn’t produce sales commensurate with the extra work it demanded; in fact, while A Spell for Chameleon is still in print from Del Rey and the series it began grinds on and on, the rights for Macroscope appear to have reverted to Anthony sometime in the 1990s.

If this is indeed what happened, Anthony is far from the only science fiction author I can name who was disappointed by the lack of external validation for ambitious works. Disco-era names that come to mind include Brunner and Silverberg. More recently Adam Roberts’ novel The Thing Itself  was greeted by SF fans with a long, loud silence.  It seems to me the key to tranquility in this matter is detachment; excel only if excelling is worthwhile to you, not because you hope other people will notice and approve4. There is certainly no rational economic argument to be made for artistic ambition.

Although there seem to be issues with the quality of the Kindle edition, various editions of Macroscope are available here.

  1. I have no idea when this is set. Ivo was born in 1942 and is 25 but 1977 is in the book’s past.
  2. Ivo’s Project seems to be a super-scienced Peckham Experiment, with added breeding fun. And group sex because 1960s.
  3. Said resources include the planet of Neptune. The entire planet. There is, apparently, no such thing as a small interstellar spacecraft: go big or stay home. That must have an interesting effect on trade economics.
  4. It’s true that avoiding feedback makes one more vulnerable to the brain eater. A choice of dooms!