Fiction Reviews

Blood Music

(1985 / 2007) Greg Bear, Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, 245pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8109-3


Greg Bear originally wrote Blood Music as a short story (1983) in Analog. This won the Hugo Award in 1984 for Best Novelette. However a number (John Carr, David Brin and Stanley Schmidt (then Analog's editor)) encouraged Greg Bear to develop it and so two years later the novel was born. The novel itself was then nominated for (but did not win) both a Hugo and Nebula. Such is this novel's pedigree that this in itself should commend it: indeed, because the Hugo is a fan/reader voted award it got included in Essential SF. (Unlike other SF guides, Essential has strict criteria for any work's inclusion.) And so nearly a quarter of a century passes to 2007 and Gollancz decides to launch a new SF line called 'The Future Classics' series. Blood Music was included in its first tranche of books. It is a short novel by today's standards but for me this is decidedly a plus point (minimal padding and bloat).

The story concerns a scientist, Vergil Ulam, who generates a micro-organism using mammalian DNA. The result is a cell capable of biochemical learning. Swiftly realising the possible implications - such as cheap biocomputers - Vergil sees that his 'biologic' discovery could result in considerable rewards. His results continue to prove promising and soon he has lymphocytes learning routes through micro-mazes.

Not wishing for his employing company (who are already nervous of the work and so he feels he owes them little) to reap the rewards, he smuggles the organisms out of the lab by injecting himself with them. This should not give him any ill effects, but since the organisms can learn so they adapt. Before long the organisms co-operate with each other, biochemical learning gives way to communal sentience, and they even start to communicate with their host, Vergil...

Then comes the time when one host is not enough, nor are the hosts satisfactory in their normal form so they are changed. In effect the organisms become a highly infective, figure-transforming disease. People become monsters and society begins to break down.

However the ensuing pandemic has its oddities. For instance, why is it that some countries remain unaffected? How come conventional, even extreme measures, of disease control do not work? As with some of Bear's work, wonder leads to wonder, ultimately with the future, and nature, of our species at stake.

Greg Bear has written some brilliant SF since Blood Music, but in terms of hard SF this was arguably his best work for at least the next quarter of a century. As such it is a defining novel in the man's writing career. More broader, in terms of hard SF, it goes without saying that Blood Music really is a modern SF classic.

Jonathan Cowie


Footnoote* Strangely enough I saw a molecular biologist called Vergil Ulam (but not his car) at a biomedical symposium in London. He was over here because UK science in his specialization is where it is at: Brit legislation is currently quite liberal when it comes to microbiological and embryo chimera. He has had his period as a graduate student and, now a post doc, is looking for regular employment. Getting tenure in academia remains hard but he said he has a couple of interviews coming up including one with Genetron. Could this be the same Ulam? Just a few years to go and we will no doubt be seeing an emergent pathogen arising in the US. Keep watching the news...

* If you get Blood Music, see the book's acknowledgement page.

Other Greg Bear reviews on this site include: Darwin’s Children, Dead Lines, Legacy, New Legends - Greg Bear (ed), Vitals: Never Say Die, and Quantico.

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