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Book cover art by Chris Moore.
Review © 2005 by Thomas M. Wagner.

If Picoverse proved that no idea was too outré for the pen of Robert A. Metzger, with CUSP he's really off to the races. As strange as the real world of science has gotten lately (I'm writing this on the day Nature has announced the discovery of a starless galaxy composed entirely of dark matter), there's a fine line across which even the most dedicated hard-science junkies will curb their "bring it on" enthusiasm for gonzo ideas and call a time out. Metzger's trademark is to walk that fine line with an indifference to danger that would do Charles Blondin (Google him) proud. The result is a novel just as weird and entertaining as Picoverse, provided you're willing to spend some time in the funhouse of Metzger's mind.

Saddled with more plot than you or I have had hot meals, CUSP opens about 25 years in the future, when a series of extraordinary — to put it mildly — events reshape world history for all time. First is the sudden transformation of the sun itself into an enormous spacecraft. Naw, come on, keep reading. A massive jet of flame sends our mother star hurtling away from us. But before life as we know it can come to an abrupt end, the Earth pulls a surprise of its own. Two enormous ring-like structures — self-assembling, as we come to learn, via nanotech — erupt from the crust along both equatorial and north-south longitudinal axes. These promptly sprout propulsion towers (check the cover art, which is a little inaccurate to the novel's text but gives you the basic idea), and off goes the Earth after its mother like a duckling.

You're probably moving your mouse right this minute to click away to a different review, dismissing Metzger as just another boomer acid casualty whose sanity is teetering on the brink. But SF is supposed to be accommodating of the wildest flights of imagination, and when you couple an imagination like Metzger's with his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink audacity, you can easily find yourself willing to go with it. Happily, Metzger aids that all-important willing suspension of disbelief with some fast-paced storytelling, plentiful wit, startling action setpieces, and, most crucially, by abiding by the rules he has set for his own story. It must be said that, well before we get to the end of this demented odyssey, it has all gone on a bit too long, with a couple of surprise twists too many. But you'd be hard-pressed not to be impressed with the energy behind Metzger's tackling of such a sprawling, outrageous tale, and by his deftness at tying together so many story threads that for the longest time seem to be whipping around wildly in a narrative hurricane of his own devising.

The initial burst of the sun's jet is very brief, as is the Earth's followup, and twenty years pass while the rings lie dormant and humanity struggles to process what's going on. At the forefront of this quest is military martinet Thomas Sutherland, who has been instrumental in the development of the Swirl. An autonomous form of synthetic life, the Swirl was originally part of an experiment to push soldiers past the point (referred to as the "Point") at which they would become posthuman, which such godlike powers and capabilities that they could control the rings. It didn't work, the Swirl now floats freely around with an impenetrable agenda all its own, and attempts to reach the Point have changed direction. A vast quantum supercomputer called CUSP has been developed, designed to integrate with a human mind — and Sutherland intends for his own daughter Sarah to be the test subject. The idea is to develop a posthuman that can be controlled, an idea whose foolishness soon becomes all too apparent.

Meanwhile, headway is made into discovering what exactly is up with the sun. With the Swirl mysteriously moving people like chess pieces towards its obscure ends, and with both the sun's jet and the Earth's rings looking like they're about to fire up again, we get some more key reveals. Whys and wherefores stack up like pancakes as Metzger unspools his increasingly complex plot. It does get to be a bit of work keeping up with it all. It's never hard to follow as it could have been and plays out credibly (all things considered). But with reveals piling up, some seeming to contradict others, it's understandable to roll your eyes in an enough-already-get-on-with-it way. At just over 500 hardcover pages, CUSP could have been tightened by about a good fifty to its benefit. One big issue is that Metzger has made his story so multilayered that when the secrets start unraveling, he gives them to us as huge, hot, buttered chunks of exposition.

But come on now. How can you not get a kick out of a book whose cast includes dinosaurs who pilot fighters, genetically-enhanced prehistoric lemurs who can unscrew their skulls like jam lids, and a virtual reincarnation of Bill Gates as (naturally) one of the chief villains? If that's not good enough, one of the book's merely human characters will come along and spout something hilarious like "You're so far out of your depth anything you could possibly say is irrelevant!", and it's smiles all around. But on a deeper level, Metzger really is undertaking a fascinating exploration of such concepts as causality and free will vs. determinism, and it's just as enjoyable to see him at play on his philosophical monkey bars.

However difficult it may be at times to figure out if Robert Metzger is hard SF's great white hope or its clown prince, his books — like particularly bizarre dreams — are irresistibly strange and wondrous trips you'll delight in.