Blood Music – Greg Bear (1985)
Bear is at his best when he balances the science and the story so that they both support and complement each other. He often goes further and takes us into realms of possibility that are exciting and terrifying in equal measure. What would happen if someone created a virus that could learn and become exponentially intelligent as its numbers increased?
The plot is simple. A brilliant but eccentric scientist working at a genetic engineering installation is doing secret research of his own, which is discovered. Told to destroy it he injects himself with his research in order to smuggle it out of the lab.
From there it is a beautifully executed examination of the consequences.
Bear structures the novel into three stages of infection. Initially the noocytes (as they are termed) remodel the scientist, making him exercise more and eat less, changing his metabolism. He meets a woman and embarks on a short-lived affair. By now, the noocytes are loose in the world.
The scientist has a theory, which is not really explored as much as it should have been, that the research was not all his but that some Gaea-esque force of nature was pushing toward his noocyte research.
People then start disappearing. Piles of clothes are found, and odd biological anomalies and structures appear.
By the third section of the novel, the noocytes have completely assimilated North America, while quarantine-crazy polices in the rest of the world see nuclear warheads aimed at Germany who have on infected refugee locked into as safe an isolation area as possible for study as he transforms.
One could argue that Bear is exploiting the ignorant fear that many peiople feel with regard to genetic engineering.
In the intervening years since ‘Blood Music’ was published, that fear has not diminished. It links in to a primal ingrained fear of disease and contagion which was at its height at the time of publication when the spectre of AIDS was hanging over the world.
There is almost an echo of Wyndham here, whose view appeared to be that Humanity is laughingly arrogant to consider itself the pinnacle of creation, or evolution (dependent on the set of beliefs to which one subscribes) since a successful species only needs a momentary advantage and we are thrown to the next rung down in the food chain. Change is inevitable. Evolution demands it. This is Bear’s message.