Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, May 20, 2013

1987: The Architects of Hyperspace (McDonough, Thomas R.)

How NOT to write a sci-fi novel (1/5)

There used to be one well-placed second-hand bookstore in Bangkok which had a rather poor selection of books, and pricey ones at that. But, one goes to second-hand bookstores for the sight of the thousands of books and the unique musty smell which hangs in the air. Before the store started to sell solely second-hand Japanese books, I poked my head in and couldn’t resist buying at least one book. That purchase became Thomas R. McDonough’s The Architects of Hyperspace. I must have been inebriated. Oh, dear.

McDonough has made two forays into novel-length science fiction, with The Architects of Hyperspace being his awkward first time. This was published once back in 1987 in paperback. The end… almost, because it was “back in print” in 2000 by the author’s fancy through some sort of self-publication website. Fast forward to 1992 and McDonough offers his sophomore novel, The Missing Matter, which becomes book #3 of the quadrilogy of The Next Wave. Supposedly, these books saw the light of day.

Rear cover synopsis:
“In a battered starship manned by two rugged adventurers, Ariadne Zepos heads for the alien world where her father perished twenty years before. Determined to unravel the mystery of his last message, she charts a dangerous course, unaware of intergalactic pirates bent on subverting her mission. To survive, she will have to conquer a world of unfathomable complexity constructed by a long-vanished race around a neutron star. Seductively beautiful, yet brimming with deadly traps, it holds the secret Ariadne seeks—one that will lead her to a far greater mystery.”


Having lost her father 20 years prior, Ariadne Zepos maintains that he died on a space mission and never heard from again. The pang of the early-childhood loss follows her through life until the day when a message is received from deep space. The message, sent from 20 light-years out, is intended for Ariadne’s audience. The shock of learning of her father’s true fate fills her with a hope for revisiting the circumstances of his mysterious disappearance, but there are minions of repression behind every move she makes.

Stefan is one man on Earth whom she thinks she can rely on, what with his job in the Ministry of Culture. However, he manipulates the amount of red tape needed to secure a starship and suppresses Ariadne’s urgent need of discovery. Ariadne has know-how and know-who limitations, but she still manages to find her way off of Earth, yet Stefan’s crony Wolf is close on her tail.

Once in the asteroid belt, she contacts the once person who her father said she could definitely rely on, the roider named Sean O’Shaughnessy. Sean and his posh English partner in petty space crime, Plum, are hesitant to equip themselves for a 20 light-year mission by a simple whim of Ariadne. Like Ariadne, their resources are limited and the whole idea of an adventure into the unknown unnerves them. Soon, the verbal recriminations of Wolf urge them to leave the asteroids at all cost, a pressure backed by Wolf’s booby traps on their spacecraft. With the physical booby trap disabled, the trio—Ariadne, Sean, and Plum—engage their hyperdrive to the required distance, only to return to normspace around a dangerous white dwarf. They realize Wolf tampered with their computer and Sean must pull them out of certain death if Ariadne is to further delve into her father’s disappearance.

Safe once again and away from the star’s well of gravity, the ship re-enters the 65th dimension of hyperspace to the exact coordinates of the message’s source point. There they find a massive system of tubular rings which surround a neutron star, a physical feat which the humans find impossible yet their very eyes stand witness to the architectural wonder. With each successive ring spinning faster and faster, the ship is only able to dock with the outermost ring. There, they find her father’s ship with his insightful data, maps, and suggestions… but Stefan’s ship also occupies the docking bay. The treacherous “friend” of Ariadne has beat them to it. The trio are more concerned with the perils of the rings rather than the intentions of their human rivals.

The thousand-year-old relic of a vanished species is full of enticing mysteries, but these same obscure functions within each ring also present unforeseen dangers to the explorers. With the accurate data provided by her father, Ariadne leads the two men further into the depths of the rings. There, they eventually meet Stefan and his crew held captive behind an invisible field. The ingenuity of the Sean reaps the reward of domination over the treacherous crew at the cost of their freedom; the uneasiness which penetrates the new group is occasionally broken by the illustrious words of the journobot, an entity which captures the moment through an objective sense of duty, yet leaning in favor towards the brave yet disloyal actions of Stefan.

Through mechanical monstrosities and wily wildlife, the group get cut down by a number of unexpected deaths by the rings’ many perils until they reach Ring 512, the terminal ring which is closest to the neutron star. The floor of the ring orbits just above the surface of the star and offers an amazing view though the starquakes upset the stability of their foothold. Descending into the corridor, Ariadne discovers her father’s final message, one which imbues her hesitant dread. Regardless, the growing relationship between the stereotypical Irishman, Sean, and the puritan goodie two-shoes, Ariadne, spur them to take the final step into solving the mystery of her father, the mystery of the rings, and the mystery of the vanished race which constructed them.


A preposterous quote from Charles Sheffield, on the very cover of the novel, states that Thomas R. McDononough is the “Jules Verne of the ‘80s!” Poppycock. While both Verne and McDonough may be adventure writers and proponents of science, Verne instills a sense of naïve wonder, limitlessness, and a love for the journey rather than the destination; McDonough, on the other hand, pushes and pushes for the destination and loses himself along the way, forgetting to metaphorically smell the roses. Any sort of originality which springs up is dulled by the ham-fisted fits of so-called humor and a preoccupation to inject prefixes to make the novel more sci-fi-ish.

I never understood the motivation of the characters to stay put in the gigantic alien relic, home to unknown dangers and organisms, rather than return to Earth to report their findings. They keep sinking deeper into the structure without heed to a proper human exploration. It’s frustrating to see Plum, the intelligent English gent, say, “There are too many tantalizing mysteries here for us to just abandon it when everything’s going so well” (146). I understand Ariadne’s desire to solve her father’s disappearance, but the weighty significance of the relic to humankind’s progress overshadows any selfish intention which they had as precursor to the adventure.

McDonough must have had fun writing this novel, throwing caution to the wind and chucking in everything he thought that would make a good novel: cheesy humor, scientific lingo, guns and booze, eccentric robot, and a computer which takes no responsible for its actions. Some of the passages are so stereotypically geeky that they make me cringe: “Evidently it is some microscopic or submicroscopic nonlinear ultrasonic vibration, as was surmised” (124). Justifying a technology through scientific wordiness? Very, very amateur.

Another amateurish stab at making the novel more user-friendly (?) is McDonough’s prefix- and suffix-ophilia. Nearly every page has some sort of word which has a lame, obvious prefix/suffix attached to it. Whether tounge-in-cheek or born from ignorance, McDonough even writes a line for Ariadne saying, “One can’t simply go around breaking English words in two and sticking pieces together at random” (175). For ease of annoyance, I have provided five categories for the prefixed/suffixed words along with an additional miscellaneous category, and ask yourself, “Do these words improve my reading experience?”:

Cryo: cryocat, cryorock, cryosuit
Roid: roidbucks, roidcycle, roidminer, roidscum
Quanta: quantarifle, quantagun, quantavision, quantabeam, quantaray
Robot: janitrobot, doctrobot, journobot, forestrobot, mechrobot
Vizi/View: viziphone, viziscope, viewcrystal, viewscreen
Miscellaneous: microgun,episuit, kelparette, sleepill, ultracutter, cryscamera, hypergenerator, hibergas, profuter, geobucks, textcrystals, metastable superatoms

Two last eye-rolling inclusions which McDonough must have thought important to the development of the novel are the noxious mild oaths (reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia [1975] mild oath of “Hot buttered moonbeam!”). McDonough likes to use “taxing” as one oath which reflects the asteroid miners' dislike for Earth’s bureaucracy, “moon dust” is also popular when describing something as worthless and plentiful, and there is religiously affiliated homage to Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger. All of these are odd eccentricities of McDonough’s which do not enrich the narrative experience the least bit; if anything, they are just silly and distracting rather than original and substantial.

After 260 pages, the novel ends in a predictive manner when opposites attract: the puritan Ariadne hooks up with borderline-hedonistic Sean to explore what lies beyond the endpoint of the system of rings around the neutron star. Within that door is the conclusion to their search, and while the unlikely-yet-predictable duo is gag-worthy, what they find is pretty interesting, ties up things nicely, and has larger implications. Aside from the non-dynamic duo, the book ends on a high note which McDonough suffocates with 5 pages of afterword. Damn.


This is a great example of “How Not to Write a Science Fiction Novel” and should be required-reading for anyone wishing to write science fiction: your idiosyncratic additions to the pages are just that—personal adornment—; don’t fall victim to stereotypes and do not, please do not, make opposites attract; don’t make the story more scientific than it needs to be, whether that includes real science or pseudoscience prefixes; and don’t fluff yourself to be the stylistic heir of a great author when in reality you’re a fledgling hack.

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