Wil McCarthy, |
(Del Rey, 1998)
Many fashionable Victorians owned a device through which they viewed photo-reduced reproductions of such things as monuments, royalty and even text abstracts. The bottom dropped right out of the market when Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease bred paranoia and fear of a miniature invisible enemy. In Wil McCarthy's Bloom, a character makes a similar inference on encountering chunky electronic components aboard an interplanetary ship. In this case the aversion results from humanity's experience with technogenic life, the mycora, a nano-technology which slipped the leash of human control on Earth and ate everything and everyone, breaking them down to constituent components. Before the end came, a remnant of humankind managed to get off the planet so that at the beginning of the novel, when we meet one such evacuee, John Strasheim, he has spent 20 years on the Jupiter moon Ganymede, living and working within a society which is, understandably, totally focused on survival. The intermittent arrival of mycora spores on the solar wind from the consumed inner solar system is working to keep everyone sharp.
Strasheim, the first-person narrator, is a shoemaker and, yes, his tale is in many ways a heroic one. For John's special talent for reportage means that he is exalted to join a select, specially chosen band who will journey into the Mycosystem, the inner planets of the solar system now completely colonized by the fast evolving mycora. They make the journey in a ship (the Louis Pasteur), whose experimental exterior may or may not prevent it being recognized as foreign (and therefore food) by the hundreds (thousands?) of billions of mycora cells it must encounter on its journey to Earth. This then in a nutshell is the narrative engine which drives the novel, but it's an engine which also pulls wagons loaded with high-grade, high-yield, triple-x science fiction.
The protagonist is ideally suited to the job of narrator and his creation shows McCarthy's skill as a writer of SF. Aboard the tiny ship with five others (two of whom are women) he must report to the public back on Jupiter's moons, and of course the readers can listen in as well. Overall, his narrative is in the form of that written a long time after the events, and addressed to inhabitants of said moons. Being a reporter and, unlike the other crew, a non-specialist, his job entails asking questions, the answers providing an opportunity for exposition of the ideas contained in this book.
The journey is eventful, thrilling, a page turner with chapter closures such as "...because it was at almost exactly that moment that we were attacked for the first time." The claustrophobia of the small ship, and the forced interaction of the various personalities onboard, is well captured, as is the mounting tension among the crew as doubts are expressed as to whether the mycora is more than just a simple, technogenic mass blindly obeying the rules and forces of adaptation. For me to say any more at this point would be to say too much.
During the course of this novel the protagonists grapple with some big questions, among them how evolutionary mechanisms might manifest in technogenic and biogenic (particularly human) life; the constraint these mechanisms place on destiny and the possibility of breaking these constraints; the concept of perfection/beauty/divinity as perceived in the human mind. Some of the novel's characters know more about certain aspects of these things than others and so by their interaction we are gradually made aware of the possibilities inherent in such concepts. Of course what makes a damn good novel is when, as in this case, struggles with abstract notations translates into high risk encounters with actual things and events.
With plot elements the like of those imponderables mentioned above the story's conclusion cannot possibly be rounded or complete, and it isn't. In the end, events occur which are beyond the Pasteur crew's understanding, and consequently ours. However, remarkably, their journey and their lives do achieve a satisfactory resolution within the pages of this superior work of science fiction.