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Boom or bust - ‘Anthropocene Rag’

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Speculative fiction often offers a glimpse at new beginnings that spring forth from cataclysmic endings. The entire subgenre of dystopian fiction is built largely on the premise. We’re fascinated by the idea of what might rise anew in the aftermath of the collapsing old.

The popularity of that fundamental concept, however, means that the resulting literary work is often wildly variant in terms of quality. Yes, it’s easy to write about the end and what comes after, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do well.

With his new book “Anthropocene Rag” (Tor, $14.99), Alex Irvine does it well.

It’s a sprawling portrait of a future United States where a natural disaster contributed directly to a technological one, the effects of both compounding exponentially in a manner that completely alters civilization as we know it. A small group of people, struggling to carve out a place in this harsh, unforgiving and mercurial world, is offered a unique opportunity. Each is left to wonder not only why they were chosen, but who ultimately has done the choosing?

Told in a deliberately haphazard fashion, leaping from perspective to perspective, “Anthropocene Rag” follows these unlikely pilgrims on their quest across a broken American landscape, one defined in ways overt and subtle by its past even as it has been subsumed by the wave of the future. There’s a new frontier – one that is ever-shifting and unpredictable.

In the future, the world was changed forever by a massive tsunami that struck the East Coast, doing untold damage to people and places all along the Atlantic seaboard. However, the physical damage done by that event was just the beginning. Said disaster also unleashed a highly-advanced nanotechnological experiment – one that began replicating and consuming exponentially upon its escape.

Just a generation hence, the entire landscape has changed. The nanotech – referred to by most as simply “the Boom” – has integrated itself thoroughly. The Boom remakes the world as it deems fit, driven by a seeming need to capture and relate America’s stories, with little regard for the people it repurposes to do so. And since the Boom has little interest in differentiating between time periods – or even history from fiction – many places are a tangled and dangerous mess.

One of the Boom’s constructs – an old-time ‘49er figure named Prospector Ed – is tasked with distributing invitations to a nigh-mythical place known as Monument City. But even as he hands out the half-dozen invites, Ed is on a journey of his own – a journey toward self-awareness. He didn’t seek this newfound consciousness, but it is growing – and it is being observed.

Meanwhile, the six invitees – a craftsperson from San Francisco, a two-bit grifter from Orlando, a religious mail carrier from New York, a mechanic from Ohio, a young orphan from New Orleans and a shape-shifting touring actress from the Plains – embark on their respective voyages, seeking out a place in whose existence they only semi-believe. Along the way, they encounter various and sundry characters from the Boom as it builds up and tears down and builds up again. Maybe it’s Mark Twain or Paul Bunyan. Maybe it’s a disembodied intelligence or a talking buffalo. Whoever and however, the group presses onward, on a quest toward a destination where nothing is as it seems … and anything is possible.

First things first - “Anthropocene Rag” is a damned fine story. Alex Irvine spins one hell of a yarn. He allows the narrative to unfold at its own pace, moving from perspective to perspective as the cast of characters advances toward the shared goal. Whether we’re marking the progress of our pilgrims or getting insight into Prospector Ed’s interior voyage – not to mention the nigh-omniscient thoughts of our mysterious string-puller – the reader is immersed into the rich and detailed world that Irvine has created.

And man oh man, those details. The blending of high-tech nanotech with figures from American history and folklore is truly bizarre – so bizarre that you find yourself wondering how it works as well as it does. The notion of a self-replicating tech that is both fascinated by stories and utterly unable to discern between fact and fiction is so clever and cleverly realized; the stretches when the book really leans into that disparity are gleefully, gloriously, evocatively weird. Seriously – it’s just so cool.

Special kudos are due the author for resisting the urge to overexplain the circumstances that resulted in the realm we’re exploring. Too much “how” can undermine the quality of world-building; details are important, of course, but too many can turn a propulsive narrative into an expository slog. Finding the right balance is key, and Irvine does it, giving us a firm understanding of his world’s rules and how they came to be without getting bogged down in minutiae. Everything you need, he gives you, but no more than that.

“Anthropocene Rag” is a sharp, fast-paced work of speculative fiction. It is smartly rendered and wonderfully written, driven equally by engaging characters and in-depth world-building. It’s the sort of book that effortlessly captures the imagination, sweeping the reader up into a compelling and detailed story. The more you read, the more you want to read – your biggest difficulty will likely come when you try to put it down.

Last modified on Sunday, 29 March 2020 11:47

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