Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration by Robert Charles Wilson
Isis is not the M class planet we have been looking for, and upon landing the humans discover that it’s extraordinarily toxic to them. It’s not cheap traveling through space to distant planets, so the scientists will just have to do their best. This is the premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration. The scientists initially try to solve this problem with nifty machines and suits, but eventually one of them tries to change people at a genetic level to make them fit the planet, rather than conquering it.
Zoe carries the modified “bloodware,” and she wants to make life work on the new planet. On Earth, she was sexually abused, and though her emotions were “smoothed,” or muted, she is still troubled by them. She does not enjoy companionship, but now she feels confusing feelings about Tam Hayes. She worries that these emotions will land her a one-way ticket back to Earth, which is ruled by families and Trusts.
The novel is not quite contemporary hard science fiction and not quite Golden Age sci-fi. There is certainly room for sentences like “the air recyclers would already have been overloaded, revved by the alarm protocols into toxic-emergency mode.” In fact, there are a lot of these sentences, and they often took me out of the novel rather than pulling me into it. Still, Zoe’s emotional emergence through her exploration of her dreams is more sophisticated than something I’d expect of a typical hard sci-fi or Golden Age text. It’s also, considering that the entire planet is dangerous, less adventurous than I expected when I began reading.
At some point, I encountered a rule about when to give up on novels — read the first one hundred pages minus your age — and Bios barely made the cut for me. For a book that is just a little longer than a novella, there is a lot of flat interaction and an overdose of technobabble, especially in the opening chapters. Disorientation while exploring a new planet is natural, but, and this may be my failing, I’ve never found it engaging unless I’d already committed to a character.
Oddly, most of Wilson’s novels are told from the point of view of talented but not extraordinary (though they are often burly and handy in a fight) protagonists who witness world-changing events. Their hopes and doubts are understandable, and these viewpoint characters are almost a universal translator for the reader to interact with Wilson’s cool and often mind-bending science fiction premises. Here, Wilson’s characters are unusual, somewhat or else very opaque for much of the text, and they struggle to interact with each other (this distance is reflected in their difficult interaction with the planet). It’s as though Wilson decided to see what would happen if he ditched his universal translator — or maybe he was simply going for the mood of PKD’s less accessible novels. Regardless, it feels like an experiment that led Wilson to write more commercially constructed novels afterward.
Published in 1999, after Darwinia, a good novel that put Wilson on the map for many science fiction readers, and before The Chronoliths, which is one of my favourites by Wilson, Bios feels like none of his later books. Ultimately, I recommend it only to completists.
It does sound like it’s for completists. “Interesting failure” is a viable category of story, though, at least for me.
I think once you reach fifty, “one hundred pages minus your age” no longer works very well. That’s just me.
I’m not sure I view it as an “interesting failure.” Somehow that seems both too generous and too critical.