1980s, 1985, apocalyptic, biotechnology, Cold War, evolutionary transcendence, genetic engineering, Gollancz SF Masterworks, Greg Bear, Hard SF, Hugo Award nominee, nanotechnology, Nebula Award nominee, Prix Tour-Apollo Award winner, techno-thriller, thriller
Imagine old-school Michael Crichton techno-thriller levels of runamok science taken to the extreme (ala Frankenstein) and combine it with a heaping extra dose of hard science, including a lot of era-accurate biotech/nanotech info. And throw in a bit of The Stand for good measure. There, you have Greg Bear’s Blood Music, the book that put biotech and nanotech in the minds of science fiction readers everywhere. People claim it was a landmark in starting the cyberpunk genre, but I just don’t see it; not only is there a large difference between the types of technology, but it lacks the dystopian noir of cyberpunk, where antiheroes dart through grimy settings ruled by pervasive Orwellian authorities (cough megacorporations cough).
But without a doubt Blood Music paved the way for Crichton and the techno-thriller genre, and was a major influence to modern SF. It was the first novel to tackle themes of nanotechnology, had an engaging plot, and was science-backed Hard SF.
The book starts with Vergil I. Ulam, a whiz-kid scientist working for a California-based technology firm. The company’s developing biochips, human-computer interfaces that meld within the body to perform medical research and treatment—medical nanotech. But this amazing line of developments doesn’t interest Vergil; he’s floating on by phoning in his genius intellect. In the meantime he’s using the firm’s lab to do his own research: providing human cells with the capacity for sentience and memory.
When the company finds out and orders him to get rid of it all, injects himself with his test subjects in order to keep the experiment going. The cells then start changing him, fixing him, learning and growing… creating the music that pulses within his blood. Things get out of control—or begin a chain of rapid human evolution, depending on your point of view. I’m torn between reading it as the evolutionary transcendence of humanity and a living plague of thinking cells, because Bear pitches both of the ideas more-or-less as equals.
After reading the novel, I discovered Blood Music was first a Hugo-winning 1983 novella; that makes sense, as the novel version is very uneven. The first section is all about Vergil: who he is, what he’s doing, what he did, what he’s thinking, how his surroundings look. Lots of omniscient exposition, lots of telling, lots of hard science, lots of setup, dull, dull, dull. It introduces the novel’s central concept—sentient cells—but doesn’t do much with it. On the bright side, this section is short. I can’t fault Bear—this was early in his career—but it feels very tacked on and underdeveloped, the scaffolding of a real novel without depth or excitement.
The second section is a edge-of-your-seat techno-thriller as it dawns on the world what Vergil’s done: he created a living, thinking plague, which begins to assimilate North America into a collective consciousness and reform the landscape. One of Vergil’s bosses, Michael Bernard, becomes the centerpiece: he’s infected, but flees to a clean room, and continues to study himself and communicate with his cells. Apocalyptic, fast-moving, still lots of good hard science… I have the feeling this was the core of the novella, since it’s damn good, and worthy of a Hugo. This is the section that brought Crichton, especially Jurassic Park, to mind; the action heats up, things spiral out of control, the Soviets make an appearance and I was hard pressed to stop reading. My only criticism here is that it recaps some of the first section early on. When I get a recap of what happened ten-twelve pages ago, the first act feels even more like tacked on scaffolding. (If, instead, the first act was the novella… thank God people convinced Bear to expand it.)
The third section slows down, expanding the cast of characters into survivors of the bio-plague. (It’s as if Bear recoiled from creating something so epic in scale, and toned it down to become more manageable.) The novel moves away from Cold War politics and the rapid buildup of fear and action, becoming more subdued and cerebral. Most of this act follows a young girl wandering an abandoned Manhattan, taking up residence in an empty World Trade Center, and a pair of country bumpkins who run into Vergil’s (remember him?) mother. Bernard still shows up a lot, taking us into the cells themselves. While the empty Manhattan is haunting, and Bernard’s exploratory dialogue with his cells is fascinating, the plotlines feel (again) tacked on: we didn’t meet half these characters before, and have little vested interest or knowledge. It’s good stuff: better than the first act by far, but sliding backward from the intensity and creativity of the second act.
The book’s problem are the disrupting momentum shifts: every few hundred pages we have a new protagonist to follow, a new plot line opening up, leaving the earlier developments to languish. The main idea which earned Bear a Hugo—the amazing techno-thriller of humanity beplagued by thinking cells—bursts into the scene with an awesome display, generates fantastic suspense and tension. Then Bear pulls back, slows down, focuses on other, smaller pictures: not the cells (which would be a small picture indeed) but our new protagonists. There’s no central character to draw the work together, with the exception of the cells; there’s no real climax, either, despite the amazing buildup, and the ending is beautifully ambiguous. I’ll cut the guy some slack, but this book has problems. The first section was a major turn-off, though the novel self-righted and turned into a masterpiece overnight.
I have to say, all criticism aside, this was an amazing book. The ides behind it curdle my blood (har): you can’t defend against cells, and there’s something terrifying about having thinking organisms living in, and altering, your body. Even if you read the ambiguous ending as an evolutionary leap creating a utopian shared mindscape, you have to admit, it’s a pretty creepy leap of faith to accept these cells’ changes. Blood Music is a solid performer on best-of lists and collections, and earns every right. Its second act is some of the most compelling prose I’ve ever read; every chapter ends on a cliffhanger or otherwise keeps you reading, drawing you further into the narrative. The third act introduces a lot of great insight into the situation, as we get a real glimpse of how the cells work and what they’re doing.
In the end I think this novel goes the way of a number of “great” science fiction works, Dune for one: the ideas and science it puts forth is what makes it a classic, not the writing with its choppy, hit-or-miss pacing. (That said, when it hits, it’s a home run.) The disjointed nature of the novel is a hindrance, but its creativity is amazing, its science realistic, and its tension palpable. Blood Music is a fantastic story with an above-average execution.