m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

BDO of the Day: Spinneret

Today’s Big Dumb Object (BDO) is not the Spinneret, an alien artifact accidentally discovered on a metal-poor world by humanity’s first colonists (aliens, humanity has recently discovered, have taken all the good worlds already) in Timothy Zahn’s eponymous 1985 novel, but (spoilers!) another object it eventually leads them to.

The Spinneret itself is responsible for having sucked every trace of metal out of the ground of the colony world. The colonists discover it, still working, after it sucks all their iron tools, metal shelving, and vital fertilizer ingredients away, suspiciously spitting a filament of strong, sticky unobtanium out of a nearby volcano into space soon afterwards. You’d think that would lead the scientists immediately down the cone of the not-really-a-volcano to the machinery below, but no. The volcano remains a dead-end until it’s needed much later in the plot; instead the humans find the machinery behind the Spinneret by a more clever and circuitous route.

The machine has much more than just a control room; an entire underground alien colony apparently once surrounded the Spinneret despite its evident ability to spin unsupervised in 2016 (novel-time). But no Spinners remain, only their machinery and guard robots, which are somehow still operational after a hundred thousand years.


I’ll interrupt the plot summary for a brief review. When the Spinneret complex was discovered, I began to worry that it was the rumored BDO of the novel, and no bigger, dumber object would ever come to light. I put the book down several times because I was in it for a bigger BDO and that BDO was not materializing, while even the smaller, smarter object was a slog to read about.

Other reviews are particularly harsh on the weak characters and plot holes, but I found the book such hard going because of all the human-human politics, slightly alleviated by a side order of human-alien politics. The political conflict is not based on any explicit philosophical differences between the characters or countries, but rather some basic assumption on the part of the author that people and countries will go on bickering even with ten or twenty alien species breathing down their necks. That may be true, but a whole novel about it is not science fiction; it’s political fiction.

Fortunately, my suffering was eventually rewarded with an actual BDO, revealed in the penultimate chapter a la Across a Billion Years. But be warned, this was not a BDO novel—the back describes it as a techonological thriller—and the BDO is even more of a tragic MacGuffin than Robert Silverberg’s.


In the course of a rebellion motivated (for all I could tell) purely by bickering, the main characters finally take the volcanic route into the partially-explored Spinneret complex. They find a Spinner starship still sitting on its underground pad, ready to launch out the cone. Soon afterward, the political situation forces their leader’s hand into an apparent voyage of exploration aboard that ship (though his motives turn out to be political after all), and in this way they discover a new kind of star drive and the Spinners' Dyson sphere.

"SHield World Construction" by Adam Burn, used with permission image by Adam Burn

There are quite a few interesting things about this Dyson sphere: it’s incomplete, it’s damaged to boot, it’s not a habitable sphere (on either side) but merely a disguise intended to make the yellow sun inside look like a red giant from a distance, and it’s heated (by some unspecified means involving asteroid-shaped masses chained to the outside) to red giant temperature.

The function of the Spinneret was to make the unobtanium sphere-building material that intentionally mimics the spectrum of a red giant. Because the Spinners, despite their unobtainum and Dyson-shell heating powers, were homebodies who couldn’t conceive of another way to fight their mysterious enemies than hiding from them. Nevertheless, their planet was depopulated in the attack that also shot holes though the sphere—though it’s not clear why the other aliens shot it up, since they could have just flown straight in the bigger hole where the sphere was unfinished. Aliens. So…alien.

So there’s a BDO at the end, but it’s not described very well; the approach to it is largely filtered through one character’s dread about the true fate of the Spinners. The ship is an escape pod that mostly steers itself; the humans don’t have much of a handle on the instruments and are reduced to looking out the window with a telescope—and closer to the sun, a pinhole. This puts no numbers on the bigness of the BDO or the hole in it.

I had to reread the chapter to figure out whether the Spinners' home planet was inside or outside the shell; it was never stated explicitly, only implied that it was inside. There was no landing on the planet to observe the red sky, nor any detailed description of the edge of the incomplete sphere, never mind the trip inside. But there’s another chapter and a half of politics afterwards, just to kill any sense of wonder you may have pulled together on your own out of the sketchy description.