BLOOMA novel by Wil McCarthy
(1998, Del Rey Books)
A team of humans from Ganymede search for clues to the blooming mycosystem that has taken over the inner solar system.
-- First reading (hardcover)
A neat journey into an unknown and scary world. This is a character novel, with enough outside influence to keep it interesting. Some of the story was too technical for my tastes, but that is the nature of science fiction.
I suppose one of the most difficult things to do in a science fiction setting is balancing the science and the readability. Many people read SF because they enjoy the escapism, though they might not have any technical background. In this case, I doubt if technical backgrounds would help, but given that I don't know anything about the subjects broached here, I could easily be wrong. The author is an engineer, and has a lot of knowledge and background in the space program. But he doesn't need to pass everything on to the readers.
I liked the fact that we were thrown into the setting right away, without background or introduction. The characters already knew the history of the last twenty years, which left the readers to catch up based on the dialog and thoughts of the characters. I love that way of doing things. It's called subtlety. I find it adds several extra dimensions to a novel, and may actually require a re-read someday, to see how much more information can be gleaned, now that we know the ending, and the background.
There are certainly "reports" and recollections that give us brief descriptions of what happened to Earth, though nobody really knows the truth, even from the characters' reference frame. Perhaps is was a mutated techno-virus, or something, but suddenly, "blooms" started appearing all over Earth, digesting not only living matter (plants, animals, humans...), but also the rock, metals and plastics that make up the world we live in. A mass evacuation took place, and the Lunar colony was swamped. Further blooms on Luna caused another evacuation. Some people took to the asteroid belt (the Gladholds), and others went to Jupiter, where the colony of Immunity was set up on Ganymede.
The only character worth mentioning, as he is the narrator, is John Strasheim. I have never been fond of the first person's narrative, especially when combined with the casual style that we get here. However, it was rarely overdone, and the character was fairly likable. He had great insights into the other characters and the situations they were encountering, though I think he had way too much technical knowledge, considering he is a shoemaker and reporter. Although he asks other people about issues like the pseudo-nuclear "ladderdown" technology and the t-balance of the spaceship's hull, he can also reprogram a life-simulator in very little time, including gravitational effects, and others.
Most of the time, however, we simply got Strasheim's opinions, his awe and wonder. Rarely did he encounter things he had never even heard of, so we didn't get long-winded explanations of everything, and he certainly didn't explain things to himself (meaning us) just for the heck of it.
I liked the technology that we saw here, especially the zee-spec, the virtual reality laptop, built into a pair of glasses. I want one of those goggles! It keeps the stuff that we see recognizable, while still making it advanced, which is quite a skill.
What is the plot? A spaceship is being taken into the inner solar system, which has been completely taken over by the Mycosystem, as it's called, in order to plant some measuring devices on Mars and Earth. These will be used to report if blooms have developed the ability to withstand the cold of the polar regions, as cold is the most useful weapon that Immunity has against them. It does seem strange to me that the whole ecosystem of these two planets, especially the winds and currents, could be fundamentally changed, while the polar caps appear the same as they did before the Mycosystem appeared. We have the standard captain of the ship, engineer, expert on the new hull design (which mimics the Mycosystem so that it doesn't attack), expert on the Mycosystem itself, and a few others. Strasheim reports on the journey, a public relations stunt.
Their bloom-defence expert is killed when somebody intentionally plants a bloom in the spaceport, forcing the Louis Pasteur to leave Ganymede early. They travel to the asteroid belt to gain supplies and fuel. I liked the Gladholds a lot. The one we saw was a very nice contrast to Immunity, where life was all work, with no passion or free time. Gold was used for the soles of shoes because of its insulating properties against the Ganymede cold. Iron was the most valuable metal there. In the Gladholds, gold still has the value it had on Earth. Anyway, the Gladholds, including the people we met there, were very interesting and neat, and a lot more familiar.
Of course, there is a cult that thinks the ship is going to harm the Mycosystem, and as they worship it, they want to stop the ship at all costs. They attack around Martian orbit, though the ship is able to get through and head for Earth, with pursuit still behind them.
All the while, of course, there is not much to do on a spaceship traveling between the planets. Strasheim interviews the crew, and then gets to know them closer. He gets intimately involved with, Baucum, one of the two women on board, who shows him The Game of Life, which he subsequently reprograms to make it look more like the Mycosystem. He creates his own Mulch World, and does strange things with it. The author spends too much time describing the various permutations of this program, but I suppose it was another unique contribution to the society, and he is free to explore it. He also gives us a tour of the ship, which turned out to be way too technical, as well, but not in the usual sense. It was given in a screenplay layout, with fades and lenses, and so on. That chapter was unbearable.
Baucum was the expert on the Mycosystem, and it becomes obvious that she has strong feelings toward it, and may even worship it. When they use one of their probes as a bomb instead, fighting off their attackers, she reveals herself as a cult member. She was also harboring unbloomed blooms in her bloodstream, which she releases, taking her life. She is disgorged through the airlock, but they take a long time to clear the ship of the dangerous blooms.
I suppose the conclusion of the book was inevitable, though it wasn't too disappointing. I do get tired of the "new lifeform" that appears where we thought was inanimate material, in so many books, but in this case there is a little twist to it. The Mycosystem is indeed alive, existing perhaps in another dimension, but leaking into the one we live in. They were as ignorant of us as we were of them until the first interactions took place. When the blooms encaptured humans, their consciousnesses were released, or "unpacked", into this other space. We are not given any details on what this meant, because the characters never learn exactly, either. There is a vague sense that the people who were caught in blooms are still alive, and are the better for it. But if they want to return to their physical selves, they can, and live on Mars, Earth or Venus, where Gladhold telescopes have somehow revealed people.
I do wonder if these unpacked people lose their logical abilities, however. If a Temple fanatic like Baucum was enveloped by a bloom, wouldn't she choose to come back to solid form on Ganymede to inform the rest of the world of the living Mycosystem? Wouldn't she sacrifice her happiness as an "unpacked" in order to become a prophet? Perhaps that is how the Temple got started in the first place, but nobody ever believed them.
I liked the fact that nothing was answered conclusively. We know that the Mycosystem is alive, but not exactly what it does. Even knowing, the fact that it forces us to experience the unpacked state before giving us the choice to revert seems wrong. Even the "repacked" people can't live the way they used to, as the blooms have destroyed everything around. I loved the descriptions of Mars and the Earth-Moon system, with tendrils of blooms waving in the solar wind, reaching to form bonds between the planets. It was a sickening, but somehow engaging, image.
It is not surprising that when the ship's captain discovers that he is dying, years later, he decides to take his chances inside the mycosystem, instead. If it is a lie, he will be dead anyway. If not, he might have eternity to explore another realm. That's possibly the best of both worlds.
Strasheim's job on board the Louis Pasteur gave us insight into the society in which he was immersed, and through the other characters, what made the world work. The events that he reported were very interesting, and a neat twist on the character drama of having a bunch of people stranded in a cramped space for months at a time. In all, quite an enjoyable book.
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