Saturday, December 2, 2017

Book Review: Sight of Proteus

Book Review: 'Sight of Proteus' by Charles Sheffield

3 / 5 Stars

‘Sight of Proteus’ (282 pp) was published by Ace Books in September 1978; the cover art is by Clyde Caldwell.

‘Sight’ was one of a number of novels that were released in the late 70s and constituted a sort of mini-renaissance in the genre of hard sf, at a time when the New Wave movement was starting to pall.

‘Sight’ was the first novel by Charles Sheffield (1935 – 2002), an English physicist and mathematician, who went on to become a prolific sf writer in the 80s and 90s. The succeeding volumes in the so-called ‘Behrooz Wolf’ trilogy are Proteus Unbound (1989) and Proteus in the Underworld (1995).

I remember reading ‘Sight’ back in 1978, and finding to a welcome alternative to the New Wave material then still dominating sf. I wondered how it would come across when perused nearly 40 years later……………..?

The novel is set in the 22nd century; earth is overpopulated, and in a constant state of economic and social crisis. The Moon has been colonized, as well as selected portions of the asteroid belt, but these off-world entities cannot relieve the stresses on the home planet.

Advances in biotechnology and physiology have led to the rise of ‘Form Changes’, a process by which people can dramatically modify their bodies to take on new forms and appearances. A benefit of Form Changing is the extension of the lifespan to 100 years or more; this, however, has served to exacerbate the effects of overpopulation and the conflict between those able to afford the process, and those who cannot.

To prevent misuse of the Form Change industry, the Biological Equipment Corporation (BEC) monitors the licensing and credentialing of clinics offering the process; lead character Behrooz Wolf is a leading investigator in the BEC’s Office of Form Control. As ‘Sight’ opens, Wolf stumbles across what seems to be a covert effort by parties unknown to alter an entry in the genetic records in the BEC database. When further investigation reveals a carefully crafted effort to avoid BEC jurisdiction, Wolf and co-worker John Larsen set out to question staff at the Central Hospital.

Realizing that they have uncovered the initial evidence of what may be a wide-reaching, clandestine machination to alter the future path of human biology, Wolf and Larsen set out to discover the person or persons at the center of the conspiracy. What they don’t know is that their investigations will take them off-Earth and into space…...and a confrontation with a genius who seeks to revive the science and technologies of a planet that was destroyed millions of years ago………

My second reading of ‘Sight of Proteus’ left me assigning it a 3 / 5 Stars score. The strengths of the novel are its fast pace, with chapters that are short and concise; dialogue that avoids artifice; and a constant string of 'gee whizz' moments and revelations that propel the narrative to the very last page. It also deserves mention for bringing in story and plot elements that would in time become touchstones for the Cyberpunks (such as monofilament line capable, with the slightest contact, of slicing off a finger......or even an entire limb).

'Sight' is not without its faults, however. The very presence of so many 'gee whizz' moments means that the plot gradually becomes more and more contrived, with major developments being brought up, and disposed of, within the span of a few pages, as if the author had a surfeit of interesting ideas and concepts and yet insufficient text with which to address them. 

Summing up, 'Sight of Proteus' is perhaps best regarded as a decent, if not overly remarkable, first novel, one that incorporated hard sf elements at a time when many publishers were still promoting the New Wave movement. Compared to the sometimes dull and unimaginative novels produced at the time by hard sf stalwarts like Asimov, Clarke, and Niven and Pournelle, it holds up reasonably well. I can't recommend it as a must-have, but if you see a copy on the shelf of your used bookstore, it might be worth picking up.

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