Blood Music (Novel) by Bear, Greg, 1983

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This is not one of Bear's first books, but it is generally the book that is credited with putting him on the map. Starting with a 1984 Nebula for best novella, Bear expanded this into novel form and published in 1985. Though I cannot vouch for the veracity of this statement, Bear has been credited with publishing the first nanotechnology novel ever. It is essentially a story of forced evolution, which is a theme that runs through some of Bear's other works. But unlike the Darwin novels which involved the natural evolution of homo sapiens, this evolution was at the hand of science. The book also feels like an end-of-the-world story, but it really isnít. What's more, if read carefully, one can see how Bear starts the development of the theories behind his future particle technology (later called "noach") which he used to much greater effect in the Forge/Anvil novels, Moving Mars, and the Eon novels.

Blood Music is the story of the replacement/integration of humanity into a new species. It begins by describing secret research done by Vergil Ullam which produces a strain of biological unicellular organisms that are capable of a modicum of thought and direction. Caught by lab administrators, Vergil injects the cells into his own body in order to steal them when he is fired for violating strict lab protocols against biological genetic manipulation. Why would Vergil do something so stupid? Its because he is a boy genius who never grew up (another theme that runs through Bear's works). He is a lost boy who fails to see with any clarity at all the repercussions of his actions. Once in his system the cells, dubbed Noocytes from the Greek for mind, begin to grow and develop in sophistication. They start with animal intelligence, but begin reproducing, as cells do, and soon the number of them in Vergil is unimaginable. They cross the blood/brain barrier, and realize that the Vergil Universe is not so closed as they thought. What's more? These Noocytes get into everyone Vergil touches, and start entire new universes in their new hosts. As Vergil is slowly taken over, he begins to commune with them, and experience reality the way they do. Thus the Blood Music: The symphony created by all of his own biological processes which pulls him deeper into his own unusual reality.

After escaping the Vergil-universe the Noocytes make their move and integrate into their collective almost every living thing in North America, then begin to remake the landscape into a geometric paradise worthy of Edwin A. Abbott with a Z-axis. Immediately before this happens though, Vergil's old boss Bernard suspects what is going on and boards his private airplane for Germany, where he is put into an isolation chamber. Bernard is examined as he comes under the control of the Noocytes. Within six weeks Bernard's consciousness has been commandeered and put into a group of 9 or 10 cells, and his body becomes putty for whatever the Noocytes wish to create. Bernard realizes that he can achieve immortality by copying and releasing himself as many times as he wants. Each time a part of his consciousness dies, another copy comes back to remake him whole again.

And itís at this point that the book starts to go in different directions. In Germany Bernard slowly learns that this is not the end of all that he knows, but rather the ascension of humanity into something that will never die and can virtually remake reality. Bear describes a universe where every living cell in North America becomes sentient, or some form of it. Collectively the number of intelligent beings number so many that they have the capacity to observe every single thing within range, right down to the quantum level. The effect of this is strange. Bear posits that the universe occasionally changes on its own, but only in places and in ways that are not directly observed or observable. With all these intelligent beings examining everything possible, the universe becomes inflexible. This is why, he says, the Noocytes cannot expand beyond North America: They are essentially creating a "black hole of thought" that starts to collapse under its own mass. Late in the book the Noocytes reduce themselves to the basest level of existence, and for a time disappear. When they leave our reality, the universe snaps back and is given such a case of whiplash that common and simple reactions no longer operate in the same ways as before. For example, machines and fuels stop working reliably, microscopic organisms such as yeast stop doing their thing in bread, and the climate changes.

In the U.S. there is a character named Suzy, and a few others, no more than 25 or so, who are not changed because of some chemical oddity in their bodies. The Noocytes decide to leave these 25 alone until they figure out how to integrate them without killing them, and they become de facto pioneers, trekking across the new landscape of the USA. The encounter everything from people changed into sheets big enough to cover the WTC to California hills that migrate with the sun (humorously, in a town called Lost Hills), to cities that resemble giant Jackson Pollack paintings held up off the surface with tornados and lightning storms.

And on the third hand, you have political and popular reaction in the rest of the world, mainly centered on the Soviet Union (1985, right?) I'll let you, kind reader, figure out what happens here, but letís just say it begins with protests, progresses to riots, and ends with nukes.

Bear's true mastery is really two fold. He can write characters like nobody's business, and his understanding of and ability to describe science is second to none in writing. The characters aside, Bear's ideas are immense and fun. His basic premise is that human (or otherwise) observation plays a big role in the creation of reality. But since humanity does not have the numbers necessary to affect reality by observation alone, he gets past that by evolving cells to do the work for him. The effect is frightening, and the method plays on all of our cold war fears, but the end result is something we all can understand, and may even desire. That is to say, membership in an endless society that provides not only love (yes, the cells love) but also endless opportunity for growth and expansion. Endless evolution possibilities. Not only that, but Bear postulates that not only our own memories are hard coded into our genes, but also the memories of all of our ancestors, and with our new abilities, we can access them and live them anytime we want.

Bear tends to be stoic in his delivery, really only loosening up when necessary for the telling of the story. For that reason, there are not a lot of memorable quotes in this book. I for one found his guiding quote to be memorable. Plus, it bears interest for any fan of Herbert:

Nothing is lost. Nothing is forgotten. It was in the blood, the flesh, and now it is forever.

In another section, Bernard is pleading with the Noocytes inside his body, as he is uncertain about their invitation to join them. The Noocytes speak first:

"You are already one of us. We have encoded parts of you into many teams for processing. We can encode your personality and complete the loop. You will be one of us -- temporarily, should you choose. We can do it now." Bernard: "--I'm afraid. I'm afraid you'll steal my soul from inside..." Response: "Your soul is already encoded, Bernard.

The only negative thing I can think to say about this book is that Bear leads you along with a good story, and then hits you, quite suddenly, with some cosmic idea, then retreats immediately back to the story with little explanation or segueway. I get the impression that this is because this was such an early work. He does not seem to repeat this problem in later books. The only other negative thing is personal. Bear is foolish enough to call Glenlivet an Irish Whisky. And on top of that, he spells it, in Ireland, thusly: "Whiskey." A seriously researched author should know much better than that!

The book ends with universal transformation, leaving no room for a sequel. But then again, how would any one tell a story about cells and nothing else anyway? For those who enjoy or are looking for a hard science fiction title that is accessible and readable, this may be a good bet. For those who want a story with feeling and heart, this may be a good bet for you too. Some of Bear's other works, for example Eon, not as easily accessible. But this one is definitely worth reading and sharing.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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