It’s been far too long since I’ve gotten my hands on a new Alex Irvine novel, so it’s pleasing to report that his latest is an inventive, timely, and satisfying one. Taking place in a dramatically altered American landscape in the future, Anthropocene Rag (2020) charts the intriguing journey of several young people who receive invitations to “Monument City.” The city is an urban legend, a secret destination supposedly created by the dual calamities of runaway nanotech and emergent artificial intelligence. These Wonkaesque “golden tickets,” delivered by a mysterious post-collapse entity known as Prospector Ed, promise a bright new future for the recipients — although what exactly that future holds remains nebulous. Nonetheless, hoping to escape the dystopian circumstances of their lives, the recipients set out for the Rocky Mountains to seek the fortunes of Monument City, aided along the way by weird AI constructs that present as walking personifications of historical Americana.
Anthropocene Rag is a quick, thought-provoking read that entertainingly delivers its unique fable, one that examines and deconstructs the myth of the American Dream. It’s definitely not a plotty book; folks anticipating a traditional escalation and explosive resolution will not find it. But to expect that, I think, is to miss the point. The novel’s various oddball road trips carry the characters across a speculative playground for sly meta-critique of American exceptionalism and individualism. It’s a message that certainly resonates at this moment in history, as those concepts are increasingly being exposed as disastrously destructive forces in the United States. Irvine treats this serious subject matter with an astute eye and an amusing, playful voice. It makes for an impressive, bracing read, jam-packed with commentary and invention.