If you’ve ever encountered the concept of grey goo and “The Game of Life,” a computer model that uses something called cellular-automata along with simple rules and a grid system to generate interesting patterns you’ll understand the basis for Bloom. To explain, grey goo is a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario where some sort of self-replicating technology goes out of control, eats everything and makes more of itself, and obliterates the entire Earth—or in the case of Wil McCarthy’s Bloom, much of the central solar system.
I read Bloom during a hospital stay and it made an excellent escape-novel with a strong computer science basis combined with all the necessary elements of genre science fiction. Although I must admit the characters are a little bit forgettable, some of the technology and perils represented within (and the after-Earth scenario presented) made me feel good about the book. However, if you’re looking for a page turner or something to keep you interested because the characters are excellent amazing personalities, you won’t enjoy this book very much.
In the timeline of the book, the year 2106 represents the outbreak of the terrible Bloom—a nanite technology with a nearly infinite von Neumann capability to devour nearby matter and replicate itself. The introduction of this virulent species of technology is so catastrophic that it devours not only Earth, but expands itself across the orbit of Mars and Venus—although it’s too hot very close to the sun so Mercury is mostly okay and the asteroid belt is largely untouched. The Mycosystem, a vast fuzzy area of bloom space filled with these machines, sustains itself off the heat of sunlight and continues to replicate and tinker with itself as humanity is forced into self-imposed exile and diaspora into the colder reaches of the solar system.
The threat of the bloom still looms on space colonies even in the asteroids and further out because humans take heat and energy with them. As a result, humans prepare what they call the Immunity, a careful training regiment and technologies designed to combat the Bloom by either stealing energy from a growing infection or burning it out—this brings in some of the more hilariously named “Witch’s Tits” a weapon that is basically a canister of extremely low temperature liquid gasses designed to freeze out a Bloom infection.
The plot of the story follows the protagonists as they climb on board a spacecraft designed specifically to penetrate the Mycosystem amid the inner planets and visit old Earth—which is largely dismantled by the bloom by now—to examine strange and unexpected visuals that they’ve been getting from optic and radio telescopes. The mission would be extremely perilous and terrifying. The name of the ship, The Louis Pasteur is named after the French chemist who brought us the germ-theory of disease, the first vaccines, and, of course, the pasteurization of milk to make it safe to consume.
The book continues to suggest that there’s an entire cult of humans who worship the bloom.
This becomes a problem because one of these cultists happens to be on board the spacecraft sent into the Mycosphere a fact that leads to a certain amount of intrigue and fear. In the Mycosphere, the Louis Pasteur is attacked by cultist ships also armed with a similar camouflage to protect them from being devoured.
What they find in the Bloom, however, appears to be a bit bizarre. Amid the devoured planets and the multitude of nanomachines that have obliterated the inner solar system, the machine seem to have taken on a life of their own and have become an entity unto themselves.
The book comes to its climax in the way that one might expect a fantasy-styled science fiction genre novel by presenting an (unexpected) twist that some of humanity swallowed by the bloom itself haven’t been destroyed, but still exist in the structure of the ever-expanding cloud as disintegrated entities. Although the novel doesn’t go any further to explain how or why or even deliver much of a reason to care that this happened.
I am unaware of a sequel to this book; but it would really deserve one where the nature of bloom-bound humanity vs. the diaspora into the outer solar system could be explored. It would be a spoiler to talk about this if it were the central meaning of the entire book, but really Bloom is a giant what-if scenario about the Game of Life and the grey goo scenario.
I would suggest reading it on a plane or if you’re in the hospital like I was, but it’s not going to be the next-profound science fiction novel to round out your library.