Wil McCarthy is probably best known in spec-fic circles for his short
fictions, which have appeared in such notable journals as Analog
and Asimov's. Bloom, McCarthy's fifth novel,
reveals the author's short-works strengths, with its punchy, right-into-the-thick-of-things
style. A grab bag of science fiction themes and devices, Bloom
sets the scene in bold strokes, giving the reader the chance to infer much
of what other authors spell out detail by microscopically painful detail.
Virtual reality, biotech, nanotech and space travel all play essential
roles in this fast-paced novel with its wryly irreverent point-of-view.
In the year 2106, humanity has been reduced to a huddled mass of apathetic
refugees uninterested even in that most basic of drives, procreation. Grouped
tightly together in the Immunity amid giant Jupiter's moons, they are the
last bastion of the species. A fungus-like, self-replicating terror called
mycora has covered Earth, its surrounding space, even Mars with
its deadly spores. Whether a product of alien biology or a man-made
self-replicator gone very wrong, the mycora is still as deadly. A fraction of the human population of earth makes it
off planet in time to escape the horrifying death that a mycoric bloom
promises an animate being. Escaping in a terrified mass exodus to the moons
of Jupiter, humans run to an existence in cold and dark, living under the
deadly shadow of the blooms.
These survivors lead dehumanized, hardened lives. The most common labor
is in shoe factories ("Shoes are important in low gravity," the protagonist
remembers his demoted scientist father telling him). Face-to-face
communication is as rare as dogs or cats -- people share thoughts and information
through "zee-specs," VR glasses-cum-very personal computers that are as
individualized as people's minds. Not even the constant threat of mycoric
incursion can bring the fractured species together; for as many people who
strive to find ways to defend against, if not destroy, the mycora, there
are nearly as many who believe that these spores harbor a soul or souls.
Some extremists even worship the mycora as God.
For John Strasheim, shoemaker and independent Net journalist, an invitation
to ride along on the impending flight of the Louis Pasteur is
a mixed blessing. It's an opportunity to take a break from the drudgery
of his everyday life; it's a flattering recognition of his stature as an
independent commentator. It's also about as close to every person's nightmare
as he can get -- a deliberate foray into the heart of the Mycosystem.
The Louis Pasteur is a vehicle equipped with experimental gear
that might allow it to pass uninfected through any bloom. If successful,
this mission might represent a new hope for Earth's refugees. The only way to
test the efficacy of the ship's defenses, however, is to take it through
the infected space outside of the Immunity -- to risk the most horrible,
painful death that a person can experience.
Strasheim accepts the offer to be chronicler of the Louis Pasteur's
mission. But there are those who don't want this experiment to succeed,
and Strasheim and the Louis Pasteur's crew are forced to take
off prematurely to escape a bloom deliberately started by extremist humans.
Wary of Strasheim and his role on board, the other crew are slow to accept
him. But he begins to truly understand the mycora's spread through
a computer simulation, and as the ship comes under increasingly irresistible
attack by the mycora, Strasheim and his crewmates will be drawn together
by the mind-boggling true nature of humanity's most implacable enemy.
Wil McCarthy is truly skilled at creating an ambience with few details.
Just one or two sketched lines suggest fully the bleak loneliness that
this possible future brings to fruition. Chock full of nifty gadgets
and hard SF lingo, Bloom is a fast-paced and fast-reading
foray into a not-unbelievable near future.