The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   63


by Wil McCarthy

New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 1998.

The Mildew That Ate New Guinea

The background to this novel is easily told. It's 2106. About twenty years ago a strain of self-replicating nanomachinery went out of control and, starting from the highlands of New Guinea, converted Earth's biomass into more of itself, including in that weight of colloidal carbon compounds the vast majority of the human race. These ``mycora'' went on to learn how to devour inorganic materials of almost all sorts, and their spores, driven by the solar wind and the light of the sun, colonized everything within the orbit of Mars: the ``Mycosystem.'' The survivors of humanity --- a few million people at the most --- live in the asteroids, the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and Titan. They are protected by artificial immune-systems embracing entire settlements, and, at least in the outer solar system, which calls itself ``the Immunity,'' by a permanent siege-mentality. The book opens with a description of one of the occasional failures of the Immunity, a ``bloom'' --- people being turned into mycora from the feet up, that sort of thing. (I hope I'm not the only one reminded of Shel Silverstein's poem ``I'm Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor, and I Don't Like It One Bit.'')

The description comes from the writings of our hero and narrator, one John Strasheim, full-time cobbler and amateur journalist. His reporting (a rare activity, we're told, though there are news programs on the net) brings him to the attention of the authorities. They are actually going to launch a manned mission into the Mycosystem, to investigate a new and disturbing development, the apparent ability of mycora to assimilate the microscopic machinery of the Immunity, and they want Strasheim aboard to report on the expedition for the folks back home. The idea evidently seems more reasonable to Strasheim than it did to me, and he goes along. The ship gets launched weeks ahead of schedule, owing to sabotage (!), and they're off for a few hundred pages of treachery, interviews, culture shock (from visiting remote colonies of survivors), falling through space, playing with cellular automata, ship-board blooms, and discussing just what the mycora is and what should be done about it. It's a fun ride, even if the ending manages to be both formulaic and not very sensible. [A discussion of the ending, and other spoiler-laden matters.]

It's not a white-knuckle read, nor a profound one. But it is an intelligent story with good world-building, quite free of the technolibertarian idiocy of too many stories involving nanotechnology, well-told and, at least through p. 300, well-plotted. (Someone really ought to look into why so many good SF novels end badly.) Unless conditions change drastically, it seems nearly inevitable that eventually --- maybe next century, maybe in five --- we'll start playing around with molecular machines, as active devices for changing the world, instead of just computers for interpreting it. The possibility then opens up that we'll make --- either deliberately or by accident --- something which will be very effective at turning everything else into more of itself, what those who make it their profession to speculate about such matters call ``grey goo.'' It may not happen; but if it does, McCarthy's book will all but surely prove to have been wildly optimistic.

310 pp.
Science Fiction
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-345-40857-8, US$23.95
5 October 1998; thanks to Jeffrey Willson.