[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Novel 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 shortcut network.

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 completely unfamiliar.

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 point ...

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 space.

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.


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 past.

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.


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 beings ...

[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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