SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Starplex > Synopsis
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Spoiler Warning! This document discloses many of the
details of the plot of the novel it discusses. It's strongly
recommended that you not look at this document until after
finishing the novel in question.
This isn't actually an outline it's a 1,900-word
synopsis of the first three-quarters of
Starplex, created after the
book was finished. Robert J. Sawyer sold his
Hugo Award-nominated novel
Starplex based on a separate
outline. However, when the novel was
serialized in four parts in Analog Science Fiction and
Fact magazine, editor Stanley Schmidt requested a synopsis of
the first three-quarters of the novel, to be run in successively
longer versions at the beginning of the second, third, and fourth
installments of the serial.
The giant starship Starplex is severely damaged, and
hundreds of Commonwealth citizens are dead. Keith
Lansing, Starplex's director, is in a small travel
pod, heading away from Starplex. He approaches a shortcut
one of four billion artificial and apparently abandoned
stargates that permeate the Milky Way galaxy selecting the
appropriate entrance angle to exit at New Beijing (the Earth
colony world of Tau Ceti IV).
But instead of emerging at his intended destination, Keith
arrives near a rose-colored nebula. A starship from some vastly
advanced culture, shaped roughly like a dragon, approaches
Keith's pod and draws it into a cavernous docking bay. Keith
had correctly selected for Tau Ceti, but he's been
diverted by someone who can control the stargates. Keith
realizes he's about to meet the never-before-seen makers of the
The bay's interior is transformed into a simulation of Earth's
countryside. A transparent humanoid figure, whom Keith dubs
Glass, appears. He says Keith holds the key not just to
the future, but also the past. The humanoid is inordinately
interested in Keith's family: his wife, Clarissa "Rissa"
Cervantes, who serves as Starplex's head of life
sciences, and their son Saul, now off at university. But soon
Glass is called away, and Keith is left to explore the Earth
simulation. He notes that some of the details are wrong: all
the clover is four-leafed, and although he recognizes many of the
plant and animal species, he also sees an emerald songbird that's
Glass returns and Keith demands that he explain who he is and why
he's so interested in Keith. The answer is amazing: the glass
man is Keith Keith from ten billion years in the
future. The rose-colored nebula is what's left of Sol, after it
had been forced into a nova explosion in order to recycle its
heavy atoms into the interstellar medium. Keith is left
staggered by this, while we learn the story of how he got to this
The year is 2094. Eighteen years earlier, the shortcut network
was discovered. Shortly thereafter, humans and dolphins joined
with two alien races to form the Commonwealth of Planets. The
alien races are the Ibs (wheeled, gestalt creatures from the
planet Flatland, 53,000 light-years from Earth) and the
Waldahudin (six-limbed, piglike creatures from the planet
Rehbollo, 70,000 light-years from Earth).
A shortcut is inactive until something enters it locally. When a
new shortcut comes online, the giant Commonwealth research vessel
Starplex is dispatched to investigate. But when
Starplex emerges at the most recently activated exit
point, the crew is amazed to see twinkling stars in open
Of course, it turns out that the stars aren't really twinkling.
Rather, they're being obscured by clouds of dust and hundreds of
giant Jupiter-sized spheres. The spheres seem packed much closer
together than their gravity would normally allow.
Automated probes are sent into one of the spheres, and
samples are brought on-board. The material is bizarre indeed:
it has no electrical charge whatsoever, it can pass through
regular matter, and, in addition to its long-range gravitational
force, it also possesses a short-range repulsive force.
Jag, the Waldahud who serves as Starplex's head of
physical sciences, is the first to realize the that the material
is dark matter. Dark matter makes up the vast bulk of the
mass of the universe; its gravitational effects are detectable,
but its actual nature has never been determined.
Other research is going on simultaneously aboard Starplex.
Rissa and an Ib named Boxcar are undertaking experiments
in life prolongation, although so far they've had no luck. Rissa
confides to Boxcar that she's concerned that her husband Keith is
contemplating an affair with another woman, possibly Lianne
Karendaughter, Starplex's internal-operations manager.
Meanwhile, Keith finds himself fighting with Jag. Jag is one of
five males competing for a specific female; he is determined to
find glory enough to win her, no matter what.
Suddenly the shortcut nearest Starplex starts to open up.
What appears to be a starship fusion exhaust is blasting through
the aperture, as if a vessel had been braking when it entered the
stargate. But the aperture keeps growing larger and larger, and
the fusion exhaust is green. A tongue of plasma shoots out
toward Starplex. As the shortcut continues to swell in
size, Jag realizes that the object emerging from it isn't a
spaceship it's a star!
Starplex is bombarded with radiation from the star. Keith
turns the ship so that its lower decks face the shortcut, and
everyone is evacuated to above the central ocean deck; the water
in it provides shielding from the radiation until the ship
reaches a safe distance.
Jag and a dolphin named Longbottle do a flyby of the star
in a heavily shielded probeship. Jag is perplexed by what he
finds: a star with so much metal content simply should not exist
in a universe as young as ours.
A communications buoy pops out of the shortcut with staggering
news: stars have also emerged from the shortcuts nearest Tau
Ceti and Rehbollo and the phenomenon may be even more
widespread than that.
END OF PART ONE
At first, the Starplex crew thinks the erupting stars
might represent an attack on the Commonwealth worlds. But soon
another star also green is detected having recently
come out of an inactive shortcut nowhere near any
habitation. Incredibly, it seems as though stars may be emerging
through all four billion shortcuts throughout the Milky Way.
Jag was willing to consider one green metal-rich star a freak,
but the best explanation he can come up with for multiple ones is
that they are fourth-generation stars arriving from
billions of years in the future. The shortcuts don't just allow
travel in space; they also serve as portals back into time.
But why would stars be sent into the past? A logical question
and the logical person to ask for the answer is someone in
the far future. Jag constructs a cube that will last for many
billions of years, with a symbolic question etched into its
surface: "Shortcut with star emerging from it equals what?" The
cube, which has starlight-powered positioning jets, is released
from Starplex near the shortcut, in hopes that beings from
the future will stumble across it and send an answer back to the
Meanwhile, tempers continue to flare aboard Starplex. The
humans and Waldahudin seem incapable of getting along.
Starplex takes a quick trip to Flatland to replace its
irradiated lower habitat modules. And Rissa is stunned when
Boxcar announces that she's going to kill herself soon, as
punishment for a minor crime committed in her youth.
It's discovered that the dark-matter spheres are giving off weak
radio signals and the signals are complex enough to
possibly represent a language. As the crew watches, amazed, one
of the dark-matter spheres splits into two. The spheres are
giant living creatures, which the crew decides to call "darmats."
Attempts are made to communicate with them via radio,
establishing a dialog with the darmat leader, Cat's Eye.
The shortcut nearest Starplex opens again and the
cube Jag built pops out. A message carved into it says, "Pushing
back the stars is necessary, and not a threat. It will benefit
us all. Don't be afraid." Incredibly, the message is signed
"Keith Lansing," and is apparently dated the year 10,646,397,281
A.D. Rissa realizes that her life-prolongation experiments are
going to succeed beyond her wildest dreams.
END OF PART TWO
Conversations continue with the darmats. Cat's Eye contends that
the Commonwealth races are insignificant because they're only
recent arrivals in the universe. By contrast, says Cat's Eye,
intelligent darmats have existed since almost the beginning of
time. Although Starplex is communicating with the darmats
by normal radio, Cat's Eye reveals that they also have a natural
faster-than-light communications ability.
Boxcar separates into her component parts, committing suicide.
Keith and Rissa plan to renew their wedding vows on their
twentieth anniversary, but Keith, realizing now that he's
apparently going to live for billions of years, is having second
thoughts about repeating "for as long as we both shall live."
Jag requests that Starplex be moved to the far side of the
group of darmats, putting the shortcut out of view. Shortly
thereafter, Starplex is attacked by an armada of Waldahud
ships. The leader of the armada, Gawst, intends to seize
Starplex. Humans and dolphins, including Rissa and
Longbottle, board probeships armed with makeshift weapons, and
take off to defend Starplex. Starplex sustains
heavy damage, and water from its central ocean deck starts
flooding into the lower habitat modules. Keith orders everyone
evacuated from those decks.
The artificial gravity is shut off, and the ship is spun rapidly
on its axis. Keith has a hole drilled from one of the docking
bays into the ocean deck. Water sprays out into space,
evaporates immediately, recondenses into liquid, then freezes
into pellets of ice, which fling away from the spinning ship. By
adjusting Starplex's angle, the stream of ice bullets is
aimed at some of the attacking ships, ripping them apart.
The darmats get into the fray, too: using their gravitational
influence, they start tossing Waldahudin ships into the green
star. The Starplex crew thinks the darmats have come to
their rescue, until the darmats start converging on
Starplex itself. To escape, Keith orders Starplex
to slingshot around the green star and into the shortcut. At
such speeds, though, there's no way to calculate which other
shortcut they will emerge from. Most of the probeships return to
Starplex, but Rissa and Longbottle, aboard the probeship
Rum Runner, are too far away to make it back; Keith locks
a tractor beam onto them, and sends Starplex diving around
the green star.
Just before they hit the shortcut, Starplex experiences a
power failure due to battle damage. The tractor beam shuts off,
and the Rum Runner is lost. Starplex hurtles
through at extremely high speed ... and emerges in the empty void
of intergalactic space.
Rissa and Longbottle manage to make it through the shortcut, too,
but they emerge at Tau Ceti, directly behind a Waldahud
mothership, which is attempting to seize control of the United
Nations space station adjacent to the shortcut. At the moment
the Rum Runner arrives, the mothership has all of its
shields diverted forward. Rissa fires her geological laser,
destroying the mothership and saving Tau Ceti.
Jag makes the staggering finding that Starplex is now six
billion light-years from home. Even more staggering: the view
of the Milky Way from here, showing it as it appeared six billion
years ago, reveals a simple disk-shaped galaxy without spiral
arms. Jag is baffled: although there's never been a good
explanation for the origin and persistence of spiral arms, it had
always been thought that the Milky Way had arms even that long
ago. Without them, life never would have arisen it's only
in the arms, far away from the highly radioactive galactic core,
that stable organic molecules can exist.
Keith and Jag both stare at the young Milky Way, cupping its
image in their hands, contemplating the futures of their feuding
races. Repairs are completed, and Keith orders a probe sent
through the shortcut network to see if it's safe to bring
Starplex back to the vicinity of the dark-matter
END OF PART THREE
[Robert J. Sawyer didn't synopsize Part Four of
Starplex, since Analog
didn't require the last installment to be summarized. To find
out how it all ends, you'll have to
read the book.]
More Good Reading
More about Starplex
The outline used to sell Starplex
Other novel outlines and synopses
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
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