"I realized there was a heavy-duty change coming in biology, and I could write a really compelling novel about catastrophic evolution, punctuated equilibrium."
The Rhennius Machine was obtained in a sort of cultural exchange system. Once the Earth was admitted to a loose collection of planetary civilizations, the Earth participated in a system that improved cultural ties by exchanging artifacts of value in a sort of traveling exhibit. Since these items might be from civilizations that were vastly different, the purpose of the artifacts were typically unclear.
The Rhennius Machine turns out to have a very necessary effect; it is a great plot device. One of the effects of the Rhennius Machine is that it can reverse (replace with a mirror image) every molecule in any object passed through it's mobilator. Including people. People with an interest in organic chemistry will have a lot of fun with the extensive material on what it's like to be reversed from a first person point of view.
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