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Entry updated 30 August 2021. Tagged: Theme.


An unfailingly popular theme in sf is the discovery, usually by humans, of vast enigmatic constructions – macrostructures or Big Dumb Objects – in space or on other planets. As a rule these have been built by a mysterious, now-disappeared race of Alien intellectual giants (see Forerunners) and humans can only guess at their purpose, though the very fact of being confronted by such artefacts regularly modifies or confounds their mental programming and brings them that much closer to a Conceptual Breakthrough into a more transcendent state of intellectual awareness (see also Sense of Wonder). However, sf chutzpah also prescribes that such colossal engineering projects will one day be achievable by humanity too.

The enormous constructs described in the titles and contents of Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970) and Bob Shaw's Orbitsville (1975) are typical: artificial biospheres not so much orbiting as surrounding alien suns (Shaw's is a full-blown Dyson Sphere, Niven's a hoop equivalent to a section of such a hollow sphere) and having a surface area millions of times that of Earth. More recently Greg Bear topped them both with an Asteroid-based Space Habitat bigger on the inside than the outside – one section of which is infinite in extent, projecting through time as well as space – in Eon (1985) and Eternity (1988); perhaps exhausted by the sheer problems of scale, he paused in the hiatus between these books to write The Forge of God (1987) in which we are visited by an alien spacecraft modestly disguised as a very small mountain.

Although Eon was preceded by significant uses of infinity in Christopher Priest's Inverted World (1974) and Rudy Rucker's White Light (1980), neither narrative features a true macrostructure. Priest's infinite hyperboloid world is not a construction but Earth itself, transformed by distorted Perception, while Rucker's impossible mountain "Mount On" is a fantasy reification of the full range of infinities piled on infinities which emerge from Mathematics. One of the largest single macrostructures which still remains finite is the galactic-core "hyperstructure" in Eternal Light (1991) by Paul J McAuley, resembling a sea-urchin whose spines are up to half a light-year in length. Very much larger than this is the Ring, or Bolder's Ring for its human discoverer, featuring in various stories of Stephen Baxter's Xeelee sequence – notably Ring (1994) – a toroid of cosmic string, over ten million light-years across, which functions as a portal to other universes. Pushing Ice (2005) by Alastair Reynolds features a smaller, merely solar-system-sized, but very intricate structure made from tubes of more than planetary diameter – indeed containing an unknown number of planets – and linked in a kind of neural network. In Charles Stross's Missile Gap (in One Million A.D., anth 2006, ed Gardner Dozois; 2007 chap) the continents of Earth have been "plated" on to a vast disc sufficiently thick and dense to provide normal surface Gravity (and also to inhibit Space Flight, since the gravitic pull of such a disc dwindles much less rapidly with height than with a normal, spheroidal planet).

Like Ringworld and Orbitsville, John Varley's Gaean trilogy – Titan (1979), Wizard (1980) and Demon (1984) – also introduces a huge Space Habitat, this one as large as a medium-sized moon and containing a whole set of lesser, but still biggish, macrostructures within – including the convenient staircases attached to its 600 km (375 mile) spokes and at one point a 15 metre (50 ft) Marilyn Monroe. The habitat is owned by, and in effect is an extension of the body of, a "goddess", Gaea, herself a construct (makers unknown) but sentient (see Gods and Demons; Living World) and hence far from being a Big Dumb Object. Self-awareness in macrostructures, Varley correctly calculated, was the next logical step after Niven's and Shaw's visions of endless Lebensraum. Sentience and transcendent purpose were to become macrostructural commonplaces, as in the "Taj" – initially perceived as a geodesic structure larger than a star – of Fred Saberhagen's Berserker Man (1979).

In fact such objects go back a long way in the history of written sf: the sun and planets within the Earth in Ludvig Holberg's Nicolai Klimii iter Subterraneum (1741 in Latin; trans as A Journey to the World Under-Ground by Nicolas Klimius, 1742), not actually artificial but still awesome, are proto-macrostructures. Mention should also be made of the multicoloured Seven Suns – six stars arranged by bygone hands into a perfect circle with a unique supergiant at its centre – in The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956) by Arthur C Clarke.

These vast structures have proved surprisingly difficult to create in film. The difficulty is one of scale: the screen itself is not huge, so tiny humans have to be superimposed on simulated vastness in order to create the apparent immensity through contrast. Surprisingly, given the expertise of special-effects crews through the 1980s and thereafter, and the nearly universal use of the wide-screen format, one of the very best evocations preceded all this (in a smaller format) by decades. This was the enigmatic machinery of the Krell in Forbidden Planet (1956), extending in a perspective to the vanishing point.

Macrostructures may also be plural in nature, and not restricted to orbiting a solitary star. There are many of these: a good example, demonstrating the late twentieth-century popularity of grand-scale sentience in sf, is "the swarm of the ten thousand moon-brains of the Solid State Entity" in David Zindell's Neverness (1988). Many immense constructs, as here, have been built by quasi-gods – enigmatic Forerunners like the Jokers of Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976), who have littered the galaxy with such whimsical impossibilities as the Chain Stars: two linked toroidal suns. Further godlike beings in Michael Moorcock's The Wrecks of Time (1967 dos; exp vt The Rituals of Infinity 1971) create a system of vast interplanetary bridges between multiple versions of Earth brought together to share a common atmosphere. Charles Sheffield's dubious strategy in Summertide: Book One of the Heritage Universe (1990), whose title gives fair warning, is to have 1200 or so gigantic artefacts scattered through our spiral arm of the galaxy, necessitating a number of quotes from the Lang Universal Artifact Catalog, Fourth Edition (a kind of Travel Guide). This comes close to macrostructural self-Parody. To be fair, Sheffield concentrates on only one example, a mildly spectacular bridge connecting the two worlds of a double-planet system.

Iain M Banks's Culture novels feature many "Orbitals", miniature Ringworlds which – rather than encircling their suns and requiring artificial arrangements to reproduce the cycle of night and day – are simply tilted to allow half the inner surface of the rotating Ring to receive natural sunlight. These more or less practical constructs provide contrast with the titular macrostructure of Banks's Excession (1996) – enigmatic, seemingly omnipotent, composed of intelligent "fractal matter" – and the numerous "Shellworlds" (comprising multiple nested Hollow-Earth spheres, with internal suns) described in Matter (2008), most of whose action takes place within such a rococo world. Another Banks novel, Feersum Endjinn (1994), is largely set in a human-built castle – in fact the ground station of a Space Elevator – so colossal that entire warring civilizations inhabit individual rooms and portions of rooms.

Weapons of sufficiently grandiose proportions to be classed as macrostructures include the titular device of Colin Kapp's The Chaos Weapon (May 1977 Vortex [part 1 only]; 1977) – fed by an ammunition belt of suns and focused by a ring of ten Black Holes – and the planet-killing Death Star of Star Wars (1977).

The most endearing aspect of macrostructure stories is the frequent disjunction between the gigantic scale of the artefact and the often comparatively trite fictional events taking place on, in or about it. The sf imagination usually, if charmingly, falls short at this point, and many of these conceptually boggling settings become backdrops for mere soap operas. For all that, they retain an archetypal power, no matter what crudenesses they may encompass. Sf's much vaunted Sense of Wonder is seldom more potently evoked than in a good story of a truly gigantic construct. The mystery, only to be explained by a new Carl Gustav Jung, is why, even when these tales are awash with a bathetic failure to live up to their own heroic ambitions, they nearly always work.

The macrostructure or Big Dumb Object story has become an established subgenre within sf, its parameters already clearly defined. More and bigger mega-engineering projects may be expected, but the thrill of novelty is becoming harder to achieve. Note that the various macrostructures described above are essentially static, though often orbiting a world or sun: for monster artefacts whose chief purpose is interstellar travel, see World Ships. [DRL/PN]

further reading

  • Larry Niven, "Bigger than Worlds" (March 1974 Analog) [mag/]

see also: Flat Earth; Halo: Combat Evolved.

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