Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, September 4, 2014

1969: Macroscope (Anthony, Piers)

Astrology, drivel and whims ruin a promising novel (2/5)

Taking a moment to consider it, there are five ways I purchase novels: (1) on a whim, like when books are only $1 and I have an entire suitcase to fill; (2) for romantic nostalgia, like when I read a book’s synopsis and it makes me long for the days when Is first started to read the genre; (3) due to solid research, like when I track down a specific novel for a specific reason; (4) recommended to me by other bloggers; and (5) with much trepidation, like I book need to read from an author I don’t like.

Macroscope is a case of the latter two ways. I knew, of course, the name Piers Anthony but I hadn’t ever read any of this work before, so I bought one of his collections to see how I liked his writing (a damned good indicator in my opinion); I bought Alien Plot (1992) and hated nearly everything, nothing ranked above 3/5 stars. From this alone, I put Piers Anthony on my to-avoid list.

Tom Rogers, a trusted connoisseur of science fiction over at the Amazon science fiction forum, has recommended Macroscope twice [1] [2], so I thought I’d trust his instinct and pick the novel up. And there is shat sat on my shelf for four years being unread. As my pile of long-ago-bought books dwindled, Macroscope came nearer and nearer to the top of my to-read stack. Then the day hit: I opened Macroscope and willed myself to finish it.

Rear cover synopsis:
EXISTENCE IS FULL OF A NUMBER OF THINGS… many of them wondrous indeed—and those are the things of this soaring novel.

First among them is the Macroscope—a doorway that leads to all time and all space, and confronts the four who dare enter with challenges mankind has never dreamed of.

Among the things the travelers find is a place so unthinkably distant in space and time that it may in fact be at the other end of the continuum—within us—a place where ancient symbols come to life and battle with the souls of men.

And perhaps most wondrous of all in the crowded, adventurous universe of this novel, a boy become a man; a spirited girl achieves womanhood; a man’s deepest beliefs are vindicated; and a woman finds a purpose in being…”


In the very distant but visible background of humanity’s existence, the celestial events of our solar system’s planets continue on their journeys around the sun ignorant of anything to do with the humans on Earth. In the foreground, an alternative history stemming from United States’ Civil War sees blacks and other so-called minorities (aside from White Anglo-saxon Protestant) persecuted well into the far future. In this alterative universe, the 1980s is acceptably rife with racism. “Overpopulation, pollution or environment, savagery” (46) are all pushing the species to extinction, now in its subjective death throes of “hunger, frustration, crime (43).

Though the world is a segregated place, one group of forward-thinking scientists endeavored to mix the genes of all the races under a crèche in order to produce superiorly intelligent children. These 332 children actually became rather unexceptional, with a spirited few surpassing everyone’s expectations. The crèche’s singularly most gifted child seemingly died in an accident and years later, the group disbanded and each sought their separate paths in life. Ivo Archer is one such man who has styled himself on the poetry and music of the 19th century Confederate Georigian named Sidney Lanier, whose poem Individuality is often quoted by Ivo: “What the cloud doeth, the Lord knoweth; the cloud knoweth not” (479).

Concerning a project, Ivo is beckoned by his crèche-friend Brad who mans a station one million miles from Earth. The station is funded by many nations of Earth who use the macroscope, housed within, to gather data about activities on their planet and events across the solar system and through the galaxy. The macroscope is able to peer, with 1:1 scale, anywhere across the Galaxy but the macrons are only able to travel at light speed, so whatever viewed through the ‘scope is actually decades, centuries or millennia old. A few civilizations have been found, but all of these aliens also had macroscope technology and have been seen to be decaying into extinction, much like humanity.

This macroscope works under weakly understood principles: “[T]he macroscope is a monstrous chunk of unique crystal that responds to an aspect of radiation unrelated to any man has been able to study before” (31). Not only can the macroscope remote view places scattered throughout the galaxy, but it can also accept signals from thousands of different macroscopes once owned by other alien civilizations and which contain “science, philosophy, economics, art—anything that can be put into the universal symbology. Everything anybody knows—it’s all there for the taking. An educational library” (150).

The only barrier keeping Brad and his team from understanding the information is the Destroyer, a signal within the transmission which has obliterated three of the station’s finest minds, turning them into drooling vegetables. Brad has called upon Ivo for his help or, more specifically, for Schön’s help whom only Ivo can contact. Ivo is visibly reluctant to contact Schön for anyone or for anything, a small mystery which stumps Brad’s crewmates: the alluring polyglot Afra, the savvy engineer with a penchant for astrology Groton, and his ordinary unconfident wife Beatryx.

When a nosy American senator arrives at the station demanding to know what good had become of their investment in the macroscope, Brad unfolds his plan of allowing the senator, along with himself, another and Ivo himself, in viewing the macroscope’s stream of information. Midway through the Destroyer’s sequence, Ivo tears his mind away from the poison of its symbolic information while leaving the three others dead or incapacitated. Brad is the lucky one—he had been reduced to the mentality of a vegetable, leaving his partner Arfa in a state of grief. An emergency soon arises when they realize that the senator’s death will be investigated and the macroscope likely confiscated. Ivo is unknowingly deemed to lead the small team of five—including himself and the vegetative Brad—to a more secure location in order to probe the deeper mysteries of the macroscope.

As they disengage the macroscope from the station, the team of five finds little notes inexplicably left by Schön, hinting at his intention and their destination. With Ivo somehow able to circumvent the Destroyer, he is thereby also able to extract data from the torrent available. As his team leaves the station with the macroscope in tow, they know they would be unable to outpace an automatic rocket headed for them, so Ivo delves into the trove of data and finds a solution which would allow them to sustain ten gees for an extended period while on their way to Neptune: convert themselves to a liquid. After their liquefaction and coalescence, they arrive at Neptune in order to establish a far-flung colony where they can (1) live, (2) thrive scientifically, and (3) explore the nature of the Destroyer and why it inhibits civilizations from learning its secrets.

Somewhere along the 480-page journey, astrology is important. No, not astronomy, but astrology.


Aside from the poor, juvenile and off-handed quality of stories in Alien Plot, two other things turned me off about Piers Anthony: (1) his use of terrible puns and (2) his egotistical rants as a stymied author.

(1) Thankfully, Macroscope isn’t as laden with puns as Anthony’s shortstory “E Van S” (1992), which were too numerous and too awful to even begin to stomach—truly terrible. But after that stomach-turning display of so-called humor, my eye was honed sharp to nick the protruding follicle of any hair-raising pun. Reflecting his juvenile stories, Anthony has two recurring puns throughout Macroscope: (a) one about butts and toilets, (b) one about sex, and (c) an awkward combination of the two:

(a) He stopped off at the latrine—and realized suddenly that every toilet faced the same direction. The arrangement was such that when a person sat, he had to face the ‘forward’ orientation of the torus …. ’When you take your inevitable bow, your stern is sternward,’ he said aloud, finally appreciating Brad’s pun—a pun inflicted upon the nomenclature of the entire station. (100)

(b) “My ship docks elsewhere,” he said … “I love another woman, and have no inclination to embrace any but her. I mean no offence to you.” …. “Your wife?” she asked alertly …. “It is hard to see what she offers, then, that I do not. You have a very handsome ship, and I have a very comfortable port.” (296)

(c) Compared to modern liners, a thousand feet from stem to stern (he smiled a little wistfully, remembering Brad’s pun) … though this one did not appear to have much of a stem … or even the three-hundred-foot sailing ships …. No. This toy dared not stray far from its port. (266)

(2) In Alien Plot, Anthony’s parting words to the reader, in “Think of the Reader” (1989), is one big pat on his own back, a jolly good job-well-done to himself, in which he endlessly complains about editors. Additioanlly, through every introduction to the stories in Alien Plot, Anthony draws his ax in ire toward the editors who originally rejected his stories and even when they accept his stories, he finds a reason grind his ax and denounce their profession; five examples, thus:

(a) “He [an author of an anthology] accepted both [“Nonent” and “E Van S”], which shows that he'll never become an editor in real life, because though it is obvious that he didn't read them, he doesn't know that it is an editor's job to reject, not accept” (33, digital).

(b) “Once an editor learns that a story has been rejected elsewhere, his limited mind locks into the reject mode, and the game is over.” (46, digital).

(c) “I, as a writer, have of course never had a bad notion, only ignorant editors” (70, digital).

(d) “For years I tried to market humor, but editors told me that humor required a special touch, which unfortunately I lacked. I think editing requires a special touch, which unfortunately most editors lack” (86, digital).

(e) “I started out as a natural story writer, and shifted to novels because the fickleness of story editors prevented me from earning a living in stories” (95, digital).

Now… come back to Macroscope, published twenty years prior to “Think of the Reader”, and Anthony still has this quip to offer, as if he’s had an ax to grind for a very, very long time:

Lanier [Anthony’s pseudo-alter ego projected through Ivo] was crushed by this [rejected] response [to his poetry]. He believed in his work, yet the unambitious efforts of others achieved readier acceptance …. Not only in poetry … The entire society is governed by mediocrity. We never learn …. Several other prominent magazines rejected “Corn”[the said poem which had been rejected] …. Were they absolutely blind? (351)

Underneath my steady abhorrence for reading Piers Anthony’s work, when reading Macroscope, the dial on my irritation meter begins to stir annoyingly at first, then it starts to wag haphazardly, then moves to and fro erratically, then twitches spastically, and in the end the meter simply convulses epileptically. Anthony wanders through way too much indulgence for the novel’s own good.

Granted, Macrosope is largely based on astrology, especially toward the end, but the entire pseudo-science is written in an oratorical manner, claiming that “astrology is a highly confirmatory science” which applies “the scientific method” (97) and also claiming that astrology is a “doctrine of Microcosm and Macrocosm” (131). Compound this with nonsense between astrology and astronomy (134-135) and a grand orgy of gibberish about astrological signs (225-233), if the reader has no interest whatsoever in astrology, the reader should perhaps stay clear of this overlong pseudo-science foray into astrology.

Astrology isn’t the only foray into indulgence Anthony takes; there are an additional few which really grated me: an abrupt and absurdly biased trail about an accidental death (234-238), an early excursion into astrological significance with a Mediterranean story/analogy (268-310), a linear chronological evolution of animals on Earth (329-331), a prolonged written history of the birth of the solar system (333-338), a human commands an alien fleet (371-382), a dichotomous utopia split by segregated (384-401), an insectoid alien space navy (403-425)… and then a torrent of ten mini-storylines revolving around astrological symbolism (436-480).

I don't think any of the symbolism added to the story as I have very little interest in astrology and how symbolism in the cosmos supposedly relates to our personalities and fate. I've always disliked pseduo-science or fringe science in my science fiction—this also extends to hypnotism, which Anthony also uses as a plot twist, which I will now spoil for you here when Ivo says to Afra, “I'm going to implant in you a hypnotic block against divulgence” (469). The only aspect which draws me to the novel, which is very little compelled to all that repels me, is the source of the information streaming through the macroscope and the source and reason for the Destroyer. For the latter, there is at least a satisfactory tang of galactic history sprinkled between some of the erratic drivel (roughly 371-425). However, the taste doesn't linger long when more and more drivel gets shoveled onto the pages.


Now that I've read Anthony's most acclaimed science fiction and I've found it unsatisfactory for so many reasons, I can finally put to rest any doubt that Piers Anthony has any writing skill which may intrigue me. Granted, he has a large following for one reason or another, but the skills lack of skills I've seen makes me a borderline anti-fan. Dare I even try to read Chthon (1967)?

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