Today I finished Macroscope by Piers Anthony. Back in junior high I was really into Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. The original 10 or so of these books were very pleasant reads at the time. They had a real knack for suspense, humor, wordplay and mischief.

I had put Anthony’s work away as something from a younger time, but recently, while doing some research on Snow Crash, it was noted that Macroscope also made use of the concept of an information bomb, a set of instructions that when encountered by the mind, could render it inoperable. I thought that perhaps it would provide some insight from the framework Stephenson was using for Snow Crash. Ultimately that turned out not to be the case, and the mind-destroying logic program was not as integral a plot element as I had been lead to believe, but nevertheless it was pretty entertaining.

The plot can be more richly framed from other sources, but it can be summarized as this. Mankind invents the macroscope (a tool for viewing far distantly remote happenings) and starts picking up on great knowledge that’s “out there”. Imagine turning on a radio and finding some chap giving you step-by-step details on how to build a teleportation device. You do so and viola, send an eggplant across the room. Well the macroscope provides information, but instead of relocating vegetables, what is taught is interstellar travel, advanced engine construction, etc. Not bad, eh?

But wait, what if, in the middle of the radio broadcast a certain tune started being played over the other information. It was interesting and catchy, and at the end it cooked your brain. The macroscope similarly is pulling in some mind-melting material and it is the task of our intrepid quartet to find out where the signal comes from, why it is there, and for what end.

I think that my biggest problem with this story was the over-emphasis on the horoscope. Based on his list of works, it would seem that Anthony was very interested in gestalt theory / Jung / Tarot during his early career and thus the story and the characters are always framed in terms of their Jungian archetype or as horoscopic avatars. It seems that each of our heroic characters are acting within a pre-perscribed pigeonhole that the author found interesting ahead of writing the story.

In the sense that the macroscope can make sense of the universe at a distance by pulling up on the most subtle variation in the field of macrons (the particles of experience that the macroscope aggregates to present its information) Anthony has an interesting ancient parallel with the idea of the horoscope. Nevertheless the cooking up of characters according to the horoscope’s formula, seems to wear on me. Specifically it created the opportunity for characters to have in-depth discussions with one another about the mechanics and function of the horoscope. While this isn’t per se bad, it is when it is to the detriment of actual characterization. Jim Dedman once said that it is against the ideal function of a film for characters in dialog to tell one another about their motivations, the reason the film medium is used is so so that the characters can show those motivations. Having characters discuss, on your printed page, the horoscopic background of another character is similarly poor form - the characters should have dialog, or challenges, or activities that help bring those qualities out.

I don’t care whether you generate your characters by Tarot, Mad-Lib, or the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, but your characters should not be discussing each others qualities and menta-characterizing the other characters. It feels cheap to me.

I thought it was a decent read, especially the sections on how technically capable civilizations tend to destroy themselves before they manage to really do anything constructive ( fL in the Drake equation, being very small) and how all civilizations tend to undermine their long-term success immediately after uncovering great and powerful technology.

“Macroscope” (Piers Anthony)