Genre: Science Fiction
Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan
My reading stack already contains more volumes than I could hope to get through in a lifetime, so there’s a better than even chance I’d never have gotten around to reading Bloom. But I saw Wil McCarthy at WorldCon in Baltimore in 1997 where he appeared on several panels, and I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly. He seemed like a Nice Enough Guy (although a few of the aspiring writers who limped out of the workshops he attended might think otherwise); more importantly he seemed possessed of an energetic intelligence seething with interesting ideas. So when he unabashedly started plugging the soon-to-be-released Bloom, I decided to give it a read.
Well, there’s things in my reading stack that probably should have come first, but Bloom was no waste of my time. McCarthy describes a humanity exiled to the outer solar system by its own miscalculation and carelessness. Late in the 21st century or thereabouts, humans had succeeded in creating self-replicating artificial life forms called mycora. The mycora quickly got out of control, consuming the biosphere at an explosive rate. Fortunately, a sustainable number of humans were able to evacuate the Earth via “spaceports.” The explosive growth of the mycora subsequently led to the destruction of Earth and much of the immediate solar neighborhood.
The “mycosystem” dominates from the orbit of Mercury (where it starts to get too hot) to the orbit of Mars…and growing. The inner planets are now nothing but fluffy spheres of seething mycora. Most humans live beneath the Jovian or Saturnine moons, and wonder how long it will be before the mycosystem goes to work on the gas giants. A few colonies exist in the asteroid belt, at the edge of danger, but the writing is on the wall: already stray mycora riding in on the solar wind have invaded human sanctuaries on Ganymede.
So human civilization decides it’s time to take the offensive. As part of a plan to counterattack, an expedition is sent to the inner system to assess the vulnerabilities of the mycosystem. A ship with a specially-designed, “zero balance” hull immune to the mycospores is set on course for Mars, bearing a small crew that includes our narrator– who, conveniently enough for the author, is a journalist.
Even before the mission is underway McCarthy drives the plot relentlessly, with a horrific opening sequence depicting what can happen when a single mycospore breaks into a human enclave, followed by an attempt at sabotage that nearly derails everything. And the author knows how to keep us on the line once we’re hooked. Bloom is engaging, entertaining, and often thought-provoking: McCarthy shows us an asteroid colony on the edge of the mycosystem, living in a more relaxed, more joyous, more human way than their anal, paranoid brethren cooped up in the “safety” of the deep system. He shows us humanity’s inclination for division and deceit, even in the darkest of times, when the identity of our enemies would seem to be obvious and the need for unity clear cut. He shows us our propensity for constructing a religion out of almost anything.
But the reader can see the book’s ultimate revelations half a solar system away, and the climax that McCarthy doubtless hoped would be mind-bending ends up being merely… interesting. In fact, the novel’s resolution packs more of a wallop than the “surprising” nature of the mycosystem revealed in the climax.
Still, there’s plenty of meaty action and sweet brain food here–you won’t go away hungry. McCarthy is an able storyteller with a terrific eye for details–human and technical. When his next hard sf effort hits the shelves, I’m sure it’ll find its way into the upper half of my intractable reading stack..