Review: Blood Music, by Greg Bear


Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-08109-3

(Review first published on the ASIM website, November 2007)


Gollancz’s ‘Future Classics’ series, of which Blood Music is one volume, is (for now) a set of eight books presented as modern seminal works in speculative fiction. The branding as ‘future classics’, whether justified or not, is at the least an attractive play on words, and invites comparison with acknowledged science-fiction masterworks such as Foundation, Ringworld, and Dune.

Amongst the eight novels of the series, Blood Music is an outlier for several reasons: it’s by Greg Bear, an American (most of the ‘Future Classics’ authors are British), it’s the only book in the series more than 20 years old (originally published in 1985, whereas only one other book in the series was published prior to 1995), and it’s most directly concerned with near-future extrapolation. This combination makes it uniquely vulnerable to what might be termed ‘creeping anachronism’, and some references within the book – VDTs, the Soviet Union, the WTC’s Twin Towers – do indeed date it, to the extent that it now must be read as some kind of alternate history.

As it happens, Blood Music is also the only book in the ‘Future Classics’ series which I’d read prior to this year’s re-release, and I’ve found it an interesting and illuminating experience to re-read it on the other side of a 20-year gulf.

Vergil Ulam is a headstrong, maverick researcher for a biotech R&D lab. Hauled over the coals when the company bigwigs learn of his unauthorised experiments, he’s ordered to destroy all the cultures he’s been working on. Instead, he decides to incubate them in the only safe container he can get his hands on at short notice: himself. This allows Vergil to remove the tailored microbes once he gets home, so he can carry on working on them at his leisure; at least, that’s his idea. The trouble is, Vergil’s microbes have ideas of their own ….

For Vergil, it appears, has found a way to graft intelligence onto unicellular life. The ‘noocytes’ start to explore, then to modify, the environment in which they find themselves, and Vergil gradually becomes aware of the increasingly dramatic changes which are occurring in his body. Other people start to notice these changes in Vergil, also. And the noocytes, whose awareness is centred around changes in the chemical conditions of their Vergil-contained environment, start to notice the existence of other people …

I’ll confess that, twenty years ago, I didn’t greatly enjoy Blood Music. While I was impressed with the technical verisimilitude of Bear’s settings – the research lab, Vergil’s apartment, Vergil’s cellular structure – and with the developing tension of the storyline, I found two plot developments, starting from around the book’s middle, problematic. One of them, which I’ll simply refer to as ‘the shower scene’, is conceptually nasty, particularly on a first reading (although it comes across as much less grotesque once you know where the book’s heading, as I did this time around). The other development, the information theory plot-twist propounded by an Irish theoretical physicist, I found unconvincing on a first reading. I’m still of the opinion that the information-theory arguments, presented as a rationalisation for the story stalling at a point where the globe is only half dominated by the new noocytic life, doesn’t entirely stack up – it comes across as a plot device of convenience – but the book as a whole would, I think, be poorer rather than richer in the absence of the opportunities for societal observation and further story development that are made possible by the information-theory twist.

This time around, my reaction to the book has been more appreciative. It’s aged well, it seems somehow less daunting a read than it was two decades ago. Whether this is a reflection on the book, or on myself as reader, I’m not sure: probably, I think, it’s a combination of the two. There seems less necessity now, on hindsight, to decide whether the story fits within the ‘cyberpunk’ sub-genre. (My personal position is that it doesn’t, not really; it has more in common with older works like Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End than with the cyberpunk writing of Gibson and Sterling.) In a strange way, it’s ultimately a kind of introverted version of that SF standard, the First Contact novel.

I have a sense that Bear’s various protagonists (the story is various progressed through at least half a dozen pairs of eyes) were chosen more for their ability to illuminate the central concepts, rather than as genuinely interesting characters per se; but this is probably a criticism that could be applied to the majority of works in the hard SF genre. In any event, the characters of Vergil and his former supervisor, Michael Bernard (who becomes a focus of the second half of the book), are well drawn, and the ‘interior dialogues’ that each man holds with the noocytes are convincingly articulated. Another central character from the book’s latter stages, Suzy, is less well portrayed: she is, it seems, intellectually challenged (at least, that’s my reading of Bear’s description), but her voice does not convey this quality clearly. Nonetheless, her reactions to the developing situation are consistent and generally plausible.

One aspect which I do believe to be a shortcoming is the relatively muted horror tone of the book. While the events described within the book fall more into the category of metamorphosis, rather than of carnage, there’s certainly no small element of the grotesque in some of the transformations that occur. The reactions of those not yet infected by the noocytes generally underestimate the true depth of revulsion and panic which I’d expect would be manifested in response to a plague of this type. By avoiding the horrific overtones, Bear is able to focus on the more imaginatively speculative aspects of the idea, which is (overall) to the reader’s benefit – Blood Music is, in several ways, a quite beautiful story – but there are suspension-of-disbelief issues in the comparative calm with which developing events are more-or-less accepted.

Overall, does Blood Music deserve its place in the pantheon of ‘Future Classics’? That’s a difficult question to judge. It’s worth reading; it presents an interesting and thorough exploration of an idea (intelligent microbes) which seems no more silly than it did twenty years ago; and, the inevitable anachronisms aside, it doesn’t greatly show its age. I suspect that, if Greg Bear hadn’t written this book two decades ago, Stephen Baxter would likely be getting around to drafting it out about now (there’s much of Bear’s thorough analysis of concepts which brings Baxter to mind, though I have to say I think Bear does a somewhat better job overall of characterisation and plot flow.) Classic? Maybe, maybe not. Classy? Well, yes.


(Review by Simon Petrie, 2007)



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