is a 1985 SF novel by Timothy Zahn
, best known for his Star Wars Expanded Universe
books. It starts off with the launch of Earth's first interstellar spacecraft: two American built, one European, designed using a Canadian star drive. The goal: find habitable colony worlds to start off-loading some of the Earth's overpopulation. Unfortunately, all three ships promptly run into unknown aliens, one of whom tracks them back to Earth. Introducing themselves as the Ctencri, they explain the situation: no colonization will be possible for the Humans, because there are no unclaimed worlds left.
The Ctencri offer to broker a deal on behalf of Earth: in exchange for roughly $80 million dollars worth of rare metals, the humans can buy a 100 year lease to an otherwise unused planet, with option to renew. The catch? The planet in question has no metals on it, not even trace elements, meaning that to even grow food there would require special fertilization, and everything metal would have to be imported. Most of the powerful nations of Earth—including the UN Secretary General, suddenly elevated to a major power by being the Ctencri's preferred contact on Earth—decide that colonizing such a planet would be pointless, since it would be impractical to support a large population there. Only the American President seems to have any enthusiasm for the idea, resulting in the US being given a UN mandate (and the price tag) for developing the new colony world of Astra.And all of that's just in the prologue.
Once on the ground, it's up to colony leader Colonel Lloyd Meredith to try and make it a success, coping with the unexpected setbacks of an alien world, a Congress reluctant to fully fund the colony, and political unrest among the mostly Hispanic (and not very well treated) farm workers, fueled by the machinations of professional activist Cristobal Perez. But the colonists' job becomes more difficult when by accident they end up discovering why
Astra has no metals: an alien device, built into a mountain, quickly dubbed the "Spinneret" for its ability to leach out metal in contact with the ground anywhere on the planet and convert it into an ultra-light, practically indestructible, and superconductive cable that permanently bonds to anything it touches. The discovery of valuable technology spurs a sudden rush to exert control over Astra by everyone... The US that funded the colony, the UN that holds the mandate, and the six closest alien races, all vying to get leverage over the Astra colony: legal, political, economic, cultural... and military. With Astra caught in the middle, it's up to the leaders of the colony to try and figure out how to exploit their discovery to keep the colony alive, while maintaining a balance of power both among the alien trade confederation and on Earth itself.
And above all hangs a pressing, maybe vital, question: Who built the Spinneret, and why could they possibly have needed to convert an entire planet's metal—a trillion trillion tons or more—into six centimeter thick cable?
Has nothing to do with the web comic Spinnerette
provides examples of:
- Absent Aliens: Spectacularly inverted. Not only is spacefaring alien life common, but it's so common that every single planetary system in the region is already claimed, either by someone who can live there, or for its mineral resources. The Ctencri have direct contact with nine other species, and seventeen more are known of secondhand, just in this corner of the galaxy.
- All Planets Are Earth-Like: Averted. Earth-like worlds are common, but still only a small percentage among non-habitable worlds. And not all species occupy the Earth-like worlds, with the Rooshrike being explicitly mentioned as "hot world" aliens who live in environments similar to Mercury.
- Always on Duty: Colonel Meredith, being the military head of the colony as well as the only Reasonable Authority Figure for light-years in any direction is pretty much obligated to handle every crisis himself. Not least because right away, leaving one incident up to a subordinate turns out badly.
- Apocalypse How: At the end of the book we discover the builders of the Spinneret were subjected to this, apparently via massive orbital bombardment.
- Awesome yet Practical: The Spinneret cable. At one point Perez, thinking it's Awesome but Impractical, wonders what you could really do with a kilometer of super-tensile cable, other than research or building really impressive suspension bridges. Meredith points out you could fold it up or wrap it around things to make impenetrable hulls for starships or space stations; construct superconducting solenoids; indestructable tethers and construction equipment, and those are just the ones thought up quickly by a non-engineer. The Pom have an even more practical use: they're building a space elevator, to make the difficult and sometimes deadly process of launching their heavy, water-filled ships quick and easy.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The Astra colonists manage to pull one of these on the M'Zarch by virtue of managing to activate the metal leecher. The M'Zarch landing craft, resting on metal landing skids, get pulled down into the ground—crushing all of the combat-critical officers and coordinators left inside. According to the M'Zarch themselves, such landing craft shouldn't be able to be neutralized that quickly without the use of nuclear weapons.
- Chekhovs Blank: The Rooshrike attack on the Celeritas in the prologue of the book might make you think they're the most likely to be the antagonists to the human colonists. In the end, they turn out to be great allies, even volunteering to help fight off an attack by the M'Zarch.
- Dramatic Alien VTOL: Played for comedy. When one of the military officers sees exactly how fast the Rooshrike ships can take off, he comments that the plasma thrusters that the Ctencri sold the humans must be several generations out of date.
- Drunk with Power: How the UN office of the Secretary General begins to act, once they have a monopoly on alien trade.
- Dyson Sphere: What the Spinneret builders wanted an entire planet's worth of cable for. Not for harvesting the power of their sun, though, but as a means to try and hide from their enemies.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: Human discovery of this is what kicks off the plot, and the speed with which courier ships can go back and forth becomes a plot point later on.
- First Contact: Earth gets several of these in rapid succession, one of which is conducted with missiles. They apologized afterward, though.
- Future Food Is Artificial: After initial efforts at conventional farming fail, the colony is obligated to buy hydroponic equipment for producing textured algae food. One of the characters comments that it doesn't take a lot of effort to believe he's eating real ham.
- Future Slang: Inverted. When dealing with hostile aliens, Meredith orders his people to use as much slang, and particularly old out-of-date slang if they know any, in order to try and stall the enemy by confusing their translation computers. Cue him explaining why he can't "whisk everyone back to their digs."
- Leeroy Jenkins: The M'Zarch come off as this, with their first reaction to every new development being "Attack!" They're lucky that their neighbors are generally peaceful, or they might have gotten themselves wiped out by now. It still ends up costing them the entirety of their landing party when Astra activates the Spinneret.
- Neglectful Precursors: The makers of the Spinneret would count, having just abandoned their staggeringly powerful and dangerous technology, without even bothering to switch it off on the way out the door.
- On the other hand... total destruction by another species would probably make it a low priority to, figuratively speaking, switch off the light before exiting.
- One-Product Planet: Deconstructed. Part of Astra's problem is that the Spinneret forces them into being this. While they could support a huge population by selling cable in exchange for food and equipment, there would be almost no agriculture, no major industry to speak of, and consequently very few real jobs, leaving any immigrant population idle and dependent on handouts.
- Ragnarok-Proofing: The Spinneret itself, having been operating continuously for at least 100,000 years—and possibly a lot longer—evidently got this from its builders. Discussed in story by one of the scientists, who admits he had been thinking of the Spinneret as being a solid-state device that only survived in working condition due to massive redundancy. After they find a small, autonomous digging machine that's also still in working order once it's unjammed, he describes the apparently indestructible technology as "awesome and just a little bit creepy."
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Meredith. Being the last word on anything that happens in the colony and with troops to back it up, he's functionally a military dictator, but goes out of his way not to abuse it, and is almost ridiculously dedicated to doing exactly the job he was assigned to: making the Astra colony a success. Even when he has to oppose the UN and ultimately the US government in order to do it.
- Sapient Cetaceans: The Pom are a non-terrestrial variant, being described as similar to dolphins with tentacles.
- Science Marches On: Back in 1985, it might have seemed plausible that we'd be launching FTL-capable starships "10 months before the 2016 elections". Today, not so much.
- Schizo Tech: The Poms, being an aquatic species, have never invented fire, and their environment precludes many other types of high-energy manufacturing. But that didn't stop them from attaining mastery of enhanced nuclear force.
- Strawman Political: In universe, Cristobal Perez is fond of trying to make Colonel Meredith into one of these, at least in public. In private, he's much more reasonable, recognizing the position the Colonel is in on some of his decisions.
- Technology Marches On: For the most part, averted. A couple of times music is described as being on tapes, but by and large the traditional halo of 1980s tech is absent. Files are entirely computerized, all the settlement's computer systems are networked via buried fiber-optics, and most notably, cellular phones are depicted as compact and common. At one point Colonel Meredith claims that "many" of the settlers don't carry personal phones, but considering that this is an explanation to an alien invader why he can't issue mass orders to assemble in the town centers, it's quite likely not true.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: While they're more often referred to as the Russians, characters sometimes make references to the "Soviets" or the Soviet Union in a story set 25 years after it fell.
- United Nations Is A Super Power: While at the beginning of the book the UN is the typical debating society we know today, it rapidly rises to meet this trope by controlling trade with the alien races (via the Ctencri). And like any good superpower, starts abusing its newfound authority almost instantly.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Col. Meredith does this a bit, usually justified by not trusting Perez, Meredith's own subordinates, or most of the civilian scientists.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Cristobal Perez. He wants to turn Astra into a new source of hope for Earth's starving and impoverished third-world populations. He just doesn't have a good—or even decent—plan for how to do that, and his methods of politicking verge on The Starscream.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: The Astra colony and Colonel Meredith in particular have to get good at this fast, especially after being invaded once, and then being forced to declare independence from Earth.