Spinneret is an early novel by renowned science fiction author Timothy Zahn.
Originally published in 1985, as a four-part series in the June-September issues of Analog magazine. It was later reprinted as a single novel (Zahn's 4th) by Bluejay International.
In terms of plot, the story begins when Earth's first interstellar space program hits a completely unexpected snag: Not only is there intelligent life right in our own astronomical backyard, the backyard is crowded.
All told, there are 6 major space-going races operating right in the neighborhood of Sol alone. The Ctencri, the most advanced of the bunch and merchants to the galaxy at large... The Rooshrike, impulsive hot-worlders with a knack for heavy industry... The Whissst, crab-like creatures who consider the Universe to be a cosmic joke... The Pom... The Orspham... The M'zarch... Now counting Humanity, the number has grown to seven, and humans are coming in late in the game.
SETI has been searching the heavens for decades, looking for a sign. In Spinneret, by the time humanity finds that sign, they find out it reads: "No Vacancy". Every habitable world in the sector has already been claimed.
Eventually, the Ctencri decide to cut us a deal. They would be glad to give us a handsom lease on one of their worlds, in exchange for.. oh, 60 million dollars worth of certain rare materials. That may sound like a bargain, but as always, caveat emptor. The planet in question, Astra, is basically the terrestrial version of a cold-water flat. Rooshrike surveys have revealed that Astra has no metals, none. With nothing to mine, and since not even plantlife can survive without trace metals in the soil, the planet has been written off by all as simply a worthless ball of mud.
As you probably expected, though, the tables soon turn, and the humans end up with much more than they bargained for, when a mountain near the colony that was believed to be a dormant volcano is discovered to house a massive underground factory, left behind by an ancient alien race. The mystery of the missing metals now becomes clear. The factory, known as the Spinneret, leeches ordinary metals from the surrounding soil, forms them into nearly-indestrutible cables and launches them like a spider's web out into space.
Unlike Astra itself, these cables are revealed to be incredibly valuable, touching off a six-way interstellar trade war that leaves the Astran colonists solidly stuck between the hammer and the wedge...
sez me: The book as a whole represents an interesting period in Tim Zahn's career. Zahn, best know for his later Star Wars novels, actually began his career with a reputation for hard SF. Spinneret seems to mark the point where the author's writing style shifts from hard science and military themes to softer, more character-driven (space opera) adventure stories.
Unfortunately, as with a lot of transitional works, Spinneret is kind of a disappointment. Though it has its shining moments, the narrative seems to bog down in many places with endless political bickering among the humans themselves, to the point that the potentially interesting alien factions-- who at first blush would seem to be the stars of the show-- end up playing only minor roles. Worse yet, the human characters that steal the spotlight are pretty amazingly dull.
In short: fun concept, lousy execution. Not highly recommended. If you're looking for a great book by Zahn and haven't read Heir to the Empire, I don't even know why I'm talking to you: go read it now. If you're already a fan of Zahn from his Star Wars novels, and you want to check out some of his earlier work, try his Hugo Award winner, Cascade Point, which I've heard you can now find in an "Other Stories" collection that also includes Greg Bear's most excellent Hardfought.