Wil McCarthy’s 1999 science fiction novel explores nanotechnology that has escaped humanity’s control, become its greatest enemy, or rather competitor, for in the future vision nanotech is very much alive, and taking over the solar system. As the novel opens, the humans have already been defeated: decades earlier nano-replicators ran amok on Earth, leading to an emergent living system known as “Mycora,” a substance that—at least in the presence of heat—consumes most forms of matter it comes in contact with, transforming it into more of itself. The emergency evacuation of Earth to escape the spreading Mycosystem has left the remnants of humanity fragmented and isolated at the cold outer edges of the solar system, where they can more successfully combat the Mycora that arrive periodically in the form of “spores.” This is a novel about gray goo, but as we will see, it is definitely not gray.
The community from which the protagonists hail is located under the surface of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. It is called “Immunity,” and indeed its entire society is organized according to the tropes of the immune system: the human being is seen as a collective body, the Mycora as foreign parasites, battled with technology known collectively as “immune response,” developed by a team of scientists who also possess absolute political power over the community. In this technocratic stronghold, all citizens are employed in pragmatic occupations (the main protagonist works in a shoe factory), cultural activity of any kind is relegated to spare-time-only hobbies, the citizenry lives in a perpetual state of emergency, hyperaware of their own precariousness as a species. Immunity’s unit of currency (the g.u., or gram of uranium) is also its primary fuel, a collapse of the monetary system in favor of use-value that ironically figures not a de-alienation of labor, but rather the rise of a smothering militaristic technocracy.
The primary plot involves a group of astronauts (and the previously mentioned shoe-factory worker, who has been hired due to his amateur journalistic efforts, for PR reasons) who are to “penetrate” the Mycora-infested inner solar system in order to plant Mycora detectors in the polar regions of Earth and Mars, presumably as a warning mechanism: the cold is Immunity’s last line of defense, and when the Mycora evolves to the point of being able to survive in these polar regions, it will become necessary to abandon even Ganymede.
The Immunity is contrasted with the Gladholds, a loose confederation of human outposts spread across a number of asteroids, in near zero-G. Gladholders, as the Immunity crew discovers when stopping over for a refuel and shopping spree, aren’t so bent out of shape about the Mycosystem: they are going about their lives, value culture (as one boasts, they have professional poets!), and even seem, of all things, happy! The Immunity crew is horrified by these conditions, calling Gladholds “an accident waiting to happen.” And yet, the Gladholders seem to know a lot more about the Mycosystem than Immunity’s scientists. They have, for instance, discovered what appear to be human forms living in huts on Venus, which has been radically transformed by Mycora.
Immunity’s distrust of Gladholders is surpassed only by their horror at Mycora. Passage after passage in the novel describe the effects of the Mycora (on bodies, on planets) as disgusting, scream-provoking, horrific. When Bloom’s protagonist, John Strasheim, views Mycora-claimed Mars, he describes it thus: “Emotionally, with what artists used to call the ‘eye of the heart,’ I saw instead an open wound, polluted flesh wriggling with maggots and bacterial slime. The corpse of a planet, all beauty transmuted to horror and rot.” (215-216) And yet, McCarthy explicitly frames these reactions as affected, highly subjective. Certainly the Gladholders don’t feel the same way, and neither do we, as readers, when treated to more objective descriptions. For one thing, Mycora are multi-colored and complex in both form and behavior. For another, the system as a whole possesses emergent properties that vastly out-perform the human in the life processes of survival, expansion, thinking, and generating form. Technology has indeed “taken over,” wresting control from its once-controlling human creators, and thus Bloom is a quintessential gray goo tale, but McCarthy here challenges the notion that non-human technogenic life need really be characterized as inherently hostile and inferior to the human. Strasheim’s closest encounter with Mycora is striking in the disparity between his horrified reaction and what is literally taking shape before him: “…not only did the hull start blooming on the outside, but some determined mycorum tunneled its way straight through the the wall of the bridge, blossoming in a little rainbow flower beside my head.” (291) On one hand, then, McCarthy evokes the hubris of creating technology capable of destroying its masters; on the other, he suggests that such is nature of life on a cosmic scale: living systems evolve, consume each other, replace each other, and interact in a myriad of other ways. Perhaps it’s possible to co-exist, perhaps not. Certainly, living in fear and isolation is a quick route to extinction: life is marked by more than mere survival. The Gladholders know it, the Mycosystem knows it; Immunity doesn’t seem to know much beyond its titular specialty, defense.
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