21 December 2007

On the whole this is a great work of speculative fiction, in terms of both the speculation and the fiction

Blood Music
Greg Bear

Intelligent aliens are invading. There doesn't seem to be anything humanity can do to stop them. The invaders aren't from outer space, though; they originate in a genetics lab in La Jolla. Vergil Ulam, a brilliant loner scientist who's not big on thinking consequences through, injects himself with his research results (the invaders--genetically engineered, intelligent microbes) in order to prevent them from being destroyed. After radically improving his health and moving on to reconfigure his skeletal structure, the microbes escape the confines of Ulam's tissues to become a plague that threatens the entire world. Imagine that the billions of microbes on your toilet seat or in a dirty diaper are intelligent, purposeful beings intent on reshaping the material world. A scary thought, no? That's the vision of Blood Music.

Bear's engaging novel plays with themes from various sub-genres of science fiction--alien invasion, nanotech gray goo apocalypse, near-future post-human utopia--but perhaps the most salient comparison is to Shelley's Frankenstein, to which Blood Music itself alludes. The novel successfully forces us to examine the possible long-term consequences of altering genomes and of creating a post-human future. Although the novel is a bit dated (for example it relies on the Soviet Union for its element of international intrigue), the general thrust of the ideas and the story is still fresh and compelling. Toward the end, the story begins to suffer from the occasional confounding paragraph, wherein the ideas expressed outstrip the author's ability to clearly convey them (OK, perhaps they merely outstripped this reader's ability to comprehend them), and the conclusion is a bit less than satisfactory, but on the whole this is a great work of speculative fiction, in terms of both the speculation and the fiction.

(This review was originally written on December 4, 2006.)

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