Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Review: 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear




3 / 5 Stars


Vergil Ulam is a brilliant, if socially maladjusted, scientist working at the Genetron corporation in La Jolla, California. Vergil has been doing unauthorized experiments with lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell: taking introns –lengthy stretches of  ‘junk’ DNA present in every cell- and using the introns to encode information that can be processed and acted upon when injected into the lymphocytes.
When the Genetron management discovers that Vergil’s experiments are not only unauthorized, but a clear violation of NIH research regulations, they order him to stop his work and to destroy his so-called ‘noocytes’. But Vergil has no intention of stopping his work. He surreptitiously injects himself with his engineered cells and departs Genetron for unemployment benefits and a haphazard plan for the future.
But not long into his new and jobless lifestyle, Vergil notices something interesting. He has lost weight. His allergies have cleared up. His eyesight improves to the point where he no longer needs to wear contact lenses. He’s feeling fitter and healthier than he has ever felt before. He even has a girlfriend and an active romantic life. Could the noocytes in his bloodstream have somehow acted on their own to improve the health of their host ? It seems bizarre, and Vergil wonders if it’s all in his imagination.
Until he wakes one day to notice thin white lines traversing his body, just under his skin. And unusual ridges appear on his forehead.
In a state of mixed surprise and trepidation, Vergil asks his friend, doctor Edward Milligan, to arrange for a complete physical scan. What Edward finds is disturbing: changes are being made to Vergil’s skeleton, his musculature, his nervous system.  The noocytes, it seems, are not content with implementing minor changes to their creator. They have their own agenda….and it’s not limited to Vergil Ulam…..
Greg Bear first published ‘Blood Music’ as a short story in Analog in 1983; the next year it won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novelette.  Bear expanded the story to a novel, published by Arbor House in a hardbound version in 1985; this Ace paperback (246 pp., cover art by Don Brautigam) was issued in 1986.
In my opinion ‘Blood Music’ worked better as a novelette. The new material Bear added to lengthen his narrative tends to give the second half of the book a meandering quality, as various sets of characters struggle to cope with the implications of the noocytes and the threat they present to the established order. But the novel does succeed in making the difficult transition from a narrative that starts with the small-scale events of a lab experiment gone awry, to a narrative dealing with genuinely ‘cosmic’ events, without straining scientific credibility by invoking mystical or supernatural causes.
‘Blood Music’ remains one of the more imaginative SF stories and novels to emerge from the 80s.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

He should have added more tits!

Will Errickson said...

Always meant to read this; a friend was assigned it in some modern lit course like a decade ago. I did read Bear's QUEEN OF ANGELS and loved it.

MPorcius said...

Blood Music was assigned in a course on Science Fiction I took at Rutgers University, I think in 1990. It was one of the readings I decided to skip. I look at the Greg Bear novels at the library sometimes, but I have never reached the level of actually reading one.