Del Rey, 1998, 310 pages, C$24.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-40857-8
Many Science Fiction authors are said to be heir to the grandmasters of the field. People are constantly trying to find “the Next Heinlein”, with the mantle passing from author to author, stopping by such choices as Spider Robinson, John Varley and John Barnes. Wil McCarthy hasn’t widely been recognized as the successor of any Grandmaster, but with Bloom, he evokes fond memories of Arthur C. Clarke’s best travelogues.
Indeed, Bloom begins on Ganymede, an orbit away from Imperial Earth‘s Titan. But where Clarke traveled through a solar system dominated by humans, McCarthy has a much weirder -and dangerous- future in mind.
By design or accident, some nano-critter (“mycora”) has managed to eat Earth in classic gray goo fashion. A small fraction of the human population managed to escape on the moon, and then farther out beyond the asteroid belt when it became obvious that mycora was also taking over the entire inner system. So Bloom opens on a solar system whose inner planets are all inhospitable and where humans are holed up here and there in the outer planets. Still, there are occasional incursions of mycora in the human settlements. There much be fought decisively, or else the bloom replicates until it destroys the habitat.
In the middle of all this, high authorities decide that mycora has to be studied, so they send a starship in the inner system, ostensibly to drop off sensors. Our viewpoint character is John Strasheim, part-time journalist and full-time shoe manufacturer. He’s not the only one to ask himself what he’s doing with the spacemen and scientists making up the remainder of the crew. As they set out for their trip to the inner system, -battling the constant threat of spaceship bloom- the question of whether they can all be trusted is raised, and then precipitated.
The atmosphere of constant paranoia -both external and internal- is part of what makes Bloom so special. The constant threat of mycora when the expedition enters the inner space system is convincingly claustrophobic, creating a real sense of dread for the characters. All of this leads to a few efficient sequences of almost pure terror as all hope seems to be lost and the crew has to fight a seemingly invincible array of threats.
McCarthy sets up his world and his characters effectively, leading up to some interesting situations. The characterization is only adequate, however, as it does take some time to differentiate between the small cast of characters and even then they never really become fully realized. No matter; they’re still serviceable in the usual SF fashion.
There are a lot of cool gadgets in Bloom, (like the tickle implant and the fear dolls) and McCarthy is scientifically-literate, so the jargon sounds right. Though not exactly an ultra-hard-SF novel, Bloom does play according to the rules of the genre, and is more convincing because of it. It simply makes sense, even in the action scenes.
Better yet is the simple, direct and enjoyable prose style of the book. The viewpoint character is a part-time journalist used to writing for a layman audience, and the narrative reflects this superbly. Especially fascinating are the snippets of text sent by Stratheim, balancing humor and fear. (Or unsent; see Chapter 19) The book is compulsively readable… a civilian’s account of combat in deep territory, a Science-Fiction version of APOCALYPSE NOW.
But like APOCALYPSE NOW it’s a slight shame if the conclusion is so disappointing. It would have been interesting to see McCarthy do something more with this predictable finale. As it stands, it’s almost as if McCarthy shies away from really interesting revelations.
Still, Bloom is a pretty good SF novel. Fans of McCarthy won’t be disappointed by this, his best novel so far, and non-fans might take this opportunity to discover an interesting author. A worthwhile choice for a fun, quick, thoughtful and interesting read… just like the best Clarke novels. Definitely a 1998 core-SF essential.