“Anthropocene Rag” by Alex Irvine; Tor.com Publishing, New York, 2020; 256 pages, paperback, $14.99.

In the beginning of the end was the Wave. Spawned, apparently, by a seismic event in the Canary Islands that sent a colossal tsunami barreling across the Atlantic that swamped the East Coast. In the chaos following the Wave, an artificial intelligence event of comparable enormity erupted, which came to be known as the Synception. The Synception seems to be a version of the AI world’s prophesied “singularity,” which, as described by tech mastermind Ray Kurzweil, is a point where the rate of technological progress is so rapid that “it appears to be a rupture in the fabric of human history.”

I don’t think the singularity is actually mentioned in Alex Irvine’s novel of post-apocalyptic madness, “Anthropocene Rag,” maybe because Synception is a better word for the ruptures in civilization that Irvine imagines. This place is, not to put too fine a point on it, synthetically insane. Because following the Synception came the Boom, which is not really one Boom, but an ongoing occurrence of Boom containing Boomlets, in which the AI intelligences behind the Synception (which are multi-layered and wonder about each other’s motives, plans and ontological status) use nanotechnology to produce artificial and semi-artificial beings, among other things, at whim, copiously, and practically everywhere. Some places are more prevalent (and dangerous) with artificial production than others.

There is a bad guy behind this, Moses Barnum (the name appears to be deliberately figurative in the sense of religious huckster), the tech originator of the Boom whose “plans weren’t working out the way he’d drawn them up” (kind of like the biblical Moses). Barnum, however, has moved beyond that, and really is the least of anybody’s problems by the time of the story. That being: A “construct” (an artificial human created by the Boom) named Prospector Ed, who like other constructs and some humans is not entirely sure whether he’s artificial or real, is handing out tickets to the mythic, kind of Oz-like, Monument City. The main characters all have to decide whether or not to take the chance that Monument City is a real place and abandon their lives in disparate parts of North America to seek it out using these free passes.

Life in the Boom is so chaotic that gambling on Monument City’s reality seems almost like common sense to most of them. So they all start making their separate ways from New York City, Florida, Detroit, and head in the general direction of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, where Monument City is rumored to be. The journey is fraught with perils because the Boom is continually creating new and novel beasts, towns, characters. We encounter at one point, for example, Mark Twain and at another the characters Sal, Carlo and Dean from Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road,” who are driving to Fort


Morgan to visit Philip K. Dick’s grave where they find a simulacrum of Abraham Lincoln (cf. Dick’s story, “A. Lincoln, Simulacrum”).


The appearance of fictional characters as real constructs (oxymoron noted) is one of the many bizarre results of the Boom’s creativity run amok. For not only does it create nanotech dinosaurs and people, it customizes them seemingly haphazardly. This goes not only for repurposing body parts, but for all available information from the real world – history and fiction are interchangeable and interusable. What results are many story lines, in the spirit of quantum physics’ multiverse. Regular humans (survivors) are wary of getting entangled in these stories and ending up who knows where – the Boom is not only using the story of “On the Road,” but developing it. If developing is the right word. Not to get your Kerouackian hopes up — the “On the Road” story line passes quickly in and out of “Anthropocene Rag” because the characters skedaddle from it before the Boom can entangle them in anything too weird or dangerous. The characters in “Anthropocene Rag,” that is.

The deeply ironic potentialities of AI have been a preoccupation in Irvine’s fiction. Computer power based on human intelligence, what could go wrong? “Anthropocene Rag” pushes this sense of nervousness about possible ruptures in history out over the edge, and beyond, really. If Irvine is even close to being right, something really wicked this way comes.

Alex Irvine, of South Portland, has taught creative writing at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine in Orono. His fiction includes comic book and video game stories, tie-in novels, and original novels such as “The Narrows,” “Buyout” and the award-winning “A Scattering of Jades,” among others, as well as “The Comic Book Story of Baseball.”

“Anthropocene Rag” is available in print and electronic editions from online and other book sellers. So far it has not taken over my cell phone.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at universe@dwildepress.net.




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