SFM Review: Blood Music by Greg Bear

Blood Music

Should we read older SF? Gollancz seems to think so. Their SF Masterworks line has, for the last 14 years, highlighted SF classics and kept them in print. This series of posts is here to try to do two things. One to expand this authors’ knowledge of classical SF, especially eighties SF, and secondly to ask the question are classics worth reading?

Blood Music is the story of Virgil Ulman, who works at a genetics research lab. As his colleagues work away on a biological chip Virgil has been recoding cells to do something quite different. His abandonment of research ethics leads to trouble from his employer resulting in the suspension of his research but not before he injects himself with the results of his experiment. Virgil is the catalyst but his invention gets centre stage.

‘I will never understand men, as long as I live and breathe,’ his mother said, pouring another cup of thick black coffee. ‘Always tinkering, always getting into trouble.’ p43

Let’s start with the power of genetics. The first 100 pages deals with Virgil’s transformation. He’s the host of his experiment but Greg Bear looks at the effect of his transformation of those around him as well as the effect on himself. It doesn’t seem sensible to inject yourself with genetically altered material without an idea of the outcome though this is exactly what Virgil does. In the present we have several genetic modified crops, gene therapy so it’s not by any means implausible to alter genes but we’ve not quite caused the alterations that occur in Blood Music. To be fair to Virgil he just thinks he’s storing them for later retrieval. It shows how naive he is.

For the first section it appears that Virgil is both Dr Frankenstein and his monster. But he’s not a monster as such. His body and health vastly improve and you’d be forgiven that he’s created a new form of superhuman. You’d also be wrong as in the second half everything changes.

While the focus is on Virgil we get to see him gain a girlfriend. And it’s that relationship which is a bit unhealthy, if not creepy. Actually all his interpersonal relationships are a little odd. I’m not sure if Bear meant to give us a warning about scientists working alone in a lab with obsessions focused only on their work but he has.

A tension between Virgil and his friend, a doctor, shows another side to our scientist, but reinforces that he is difficult and demanding. And through Edward we get one of the most dramatic moments of the book. The trouble is that if feels like Bear is treading water up until that moment because he wants to explore the implications of the experiment being out in the wild but he can’t do that until a big reveal. It’s his girlfriend I felt most sorry for, which shows that Bear can create some interest in characters but it’s not his strength. Or at least it didn’t feel like he’d created rounded ones that would have lasted too far outside this story.

After Virgil’s experiment is released things become less plausible but fascinating and it also gives a strong indication of the atmosphere in the eighties between Russia and America and perhaps Bears views on that. We move away from Virgil’s point of view and it’s replaced by those of another scientist but one we’ve already met, a girl who is all alone and Virgil’s mother who gains some twin companions. These three give different interactions with the experiment’s growing reach.

Bear is asking what if we altered our biology via genes? What if we made something intelligent? What would they do when they interact with us?

We’re now tipping into spoiler territory but the experiment has two effects; billions more observations taking place over a finite area and America’s plight causes hysteria around the globe. The implication, at least at first, is that without America the world would turn into chaos. I’m not sure that’s strictly true. But then we have the question of observation and how observing the universe can cause it to stiffen as observed things aren’t as free to change.

Blood Music is a novel of ideas and for that it is well worth reading. The science may feel a little old and dated though it still raises some valid and interesting questions. The structure is a little bit more problematic. It’s a novella expanded to a short novel and it doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not that it’s padded but it spends time in odd ways while before it feels its time to move on. For example the thread with the mother could have been told in one page but there needed to be a journey. But that then took focus away from the scientist and the girl.

Greg Bear makes you wonder how easily the world can change through the power of science and imagination. So does that make it a classic and should it be kept in print? It is a novel of its time and is standing up quite well. It’s a concept that still feels plausible though the worldwide consequences could be a little different now.

The next novel in the SF Masterworks Project is Grass by Sheri S. Tepper  and will be posted towards the end of August.

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