Friday, October 17, 2008

Bloggin' the Bloomin' Solar System

Last weekend I finished an interesting SF book, Bloom by Wil McCarthy. Published in 1999, it's essentially a "nanotechnology run amok" story, taking place in the 2100's. The people in this story are the survivors of a catastrophe that took place some 20 years earlier, when self-replicating nanotechnology systems somehow gave rise to "technogenic life" which then proceeded to devour virtually everything in the inner solar system. These "mycora" (so named because the early versions apparently resembled some type of fungus and reproduce by sending out "spores") do not seem to be intelligent, but their "blooms" are persistent and fast growing.

Thanks to well-developed space and nuclear energy technology (see, we do need it), a few humans manage to escape the Earth and have retreated to settlements on the moons of Jupiter (deep underground) and in hollowed-out asteroids. The mycora don't do well in extreme cold, so the outer solar system is relatively safe, though spores somehow still manage to get to the human bases, which are protected by nanotechnical "immune systems" (the part of humanity living in the Jupiter system is called "the Immunity").

There is great fear that the mycora will evolve ways to deal with the cold and to overcome the Immunity's defenses. So a space mission to the dangerous inner solar system (or "Mycosystem") is launched to set up an early warning system, and most of the story takes place on board the Louis Pasteur during this perilous journey. The strange thing is, the narrator is essentially a blogger. There were no bloggers per se in 1998 when this was written, but in the computer-immersed culture of the Immunity (people routinely wear immersive VR glasses called zee-specs), John Strasheim is more or less a video blogger. He has a day job as a shoemaker (!), but he is noted as a sort of freelance journalist, and is drafted to join the crew to document the mission for the folks back home on Ganymede. It's a pretty good device because excerpts of his reports fill in details of the problems and technology of the time so you can understand what's going on. As a space-obsessed blogger myself, I liked the idea of this guy being plucked from obscurity and sent on a space mission (I'm ready, NASA!), even though the mission was hardly a picnic.

The book works better than it might sound from my description - the characters are pretty good, the technology is well described and quasi-plausible, and there are some real surprises in the plot. An interesting sideline in the story is the resemblance of the mycora to cellular automata, and specifically to Conway's Game of Life, which becomes a sort of obsession for Strasheim (I'm guessing it was a major inspiration for the book). I've played with Life a bit in the past, and there are many versions of it if you are interested, including a Java version that requires no installation (screen shot shown here, button at upper left of that page).

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