Blood Music (1985) by Greg Bear is a novel that, in its day, was well lauded, but has since had its profile reduced by books which have taken its central premise further. One of, if not the first, major novel to utilize the idea of nanotechnology, the wave of related sci-fi digging deeper into the potential for nanotech that has followed has perhaps drowned out the book, leaving it to be found by those looking back into the history of the genre. While the classic comic book opening does not endear the story, the concept it evolves into stands as an abstract extrapolation — at least, not of the superhero variety.
Blood Music is not the story of a single character, but rather many; if looked at from another perspective, it has a gazillion characters. Matters begin at a single point at a biotech research center near San Diego with Vergil Ulam, however. A self-seeking scientist, Ulam has been performing illegal experiments with lymphocytes behind the scenes of his government-funded work. When the lab’s director discovers Ulam’s secret work, he orders it immediately destroyed. Loathe to wipe out years of hard research, Ulam takes the drastic step of injecting himself with the altered cells in the hope of acquiring the right equipment to remove a sample and continue his work in the near future. He never gets the chance. Trouble is, neither does the rest of America and the world.
Bear uses transitioning viewpoints as the story evolves; the scenes shift to Ulam’s personal physician as he examines the bizarre changes in the scientist’s body, Ulam’s girlfriend Candice as she comes to terms with Ulam’s new state of existence, the lab director Dr. Bernard and his reactions to his scientist’s secret work, a German doctor both sympathetic and curious about the science behind the change, a young woman left alone in New York who represents the human elements, and eventually a small group of characters affected by the larger import of Ulam’s seemingly harmless actions. Drawing the whole world into the story, there is a light Cold War motif (the book was published in the 80s, after all) to add a touch of drama to the scene.
Not ground-breaking by contemporary standards, Blood Music comes across as rather simplistic in the milieu of sci-fi today. To describe precisely how would perhaps spoil the story. Suffice to say, for all of the novels which utilized the idea since — The Diamond Age, Necroville (published as Terminal Café in the U.S.), Stone, Queen City Jazz, and many, many others — one of the prime progenitors was Bear. The authors’ aims are of course different, but the premise is the same: what would the realization of nanotech be like?
In the end, Blood Music is a solid novel that delves into nanotech and its initial outbreak into society. The style and storytelling hold up relatively well, though there are some elements which have begun to date themselves; not to mention that the first few chapters have more in common with comic books like Spider Man and The Incredible Hulk than any application of scientific rigor, such as a Kim Stanley Robinson story. Bear’s prose is neither vapid nor beautiful, but keeps the story moving at a good pace and never gets bogged down in unnecessary details. If anything, readers will be looking for more information about the nanotech he envisions, particularly its panpsychist aspects. Published as part of the SF Masterworks series, the novel at least deserves the honor for its place in genre history.
I remember reading this at the time and liking, but not loving it. I have trouble with Bear’s style sometimes.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, like Star Trek, TOS, it opened doors and expanded boundaries… and then got left behind.