Alex Irvine’s Anthropocene Rag provided some good old biopunk with a heavy side of metafiction, smothered in Americana. In a post-nanobot-apocalypse America, no central government exists, but Americans soldier on together in terror of the Boom, a nanobot AI that is obsessively trying to tell a story by rearranging molecules, including those of living people, into whatever might fit its whims. Seven young men and women, orphaned by the Boom, are invited by an AI named Prospector Ed to find Monument City, which is exactly what it sounds like, a city full of monuments.
The Boom particularly obsesses over recreations of what could be called American myth. The only overt reference to Native American myths that I picked up on was a cameo by a shapeshifting coyote, but I’m also woefully ignorant in that field of study. Instead, the orphans, six people of color and one White, find themselves wandering through the cultural detritus of the American nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Boom rebuilds Candlestick Park in San Francisco, incarnates Mark Twain a few times over, as well as Paul Bunyan and a showman who actually is a talking buffalo, a playground where the equipment shouts at itself to give a few examples. Really, the Boom acts as an unstoppable force which can be anything it desires to take the shape of, leaving a confusing anarchy for the orphans to traverse. This America proves to be a terrifying obstacle that can shape itself to either aid or hinder them on their way to the accumulated riches of all history.
As far Prospector Ed is concerned, America can be anything he wishes it to be, but the orphans and other citizens live in fear. Teeny, whose foster parents were reorganized into the molecules of the rebuilt Candlestick Park, sees the Boom as a beast which must be humored to survive it, but one that can be manipulated. South Floridan Geck has become a con man, always looking for a new opportunity in the wilderness, in stark contrast to his dependable twin brother. New Yorker Henry tries his best to ignore the Boom and concentrate on his faith, while his friend Mo, from Detroit, accepts what happens and finds a practical edge to everything. This kind of reactionary attitude to an ever changing current should not be mistaken for complacency. If anything, it represents a method of conquering the anarchy of uncertainty through sheer adaptability for whatever might happen next.
The Boom’s powers might be a bit undefined, but such ambiguity leaves the reader with questions to ask about the malleability of stories and culture themselves. If everything can be appropriated, can we ever fully understand the meaning behind stories? How do they change us from within? When characters struggle to remember what a figure like Mickey Mouse did, the real purpose of culture itself comes under scrutiny.
Four stars out of five
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