Blood Music (Ibooks Science Fiction Classics)

Blood Music (Ibooks Science Fiction Classics) - Greg Bear "I’m not sure there’s any way to fight an intelligent plague". Fun with DNA which, as usual, can do anything. Here it provides a good excuse for a couple of picked-up-and-abandoned narrative directions but also an at times bravura depiction of self-aware biomatter letting rip.

Schlubby (but strangely computer literate; he’s in the wrong job) biotechnologist Vergil Ulam earns the derison of the reader by gene therap-ing some lymphocytes, falling out with his bosses, then doing a runner with the assets shoved down his blood stream. There's the high concept right there and this reader spent the first 100 pages of “Blood Music” desiring Mr Ulam be kicked from here to kingdom come. Virgil does the whole hideous transformation thing and info-dumps in a condominium while gormless chum Edward goes "no way!". The USP of the novel - and what probably won Bear the Hugo back in the day - is that chromosome introns are actually a sort of distributed computer program which, when transcribed (Bear riffs some molecular biology to sell this) merrily starts dismantling, then rebuilding human biomatter and allowing Bear to let rip with depictions of conscious cellular and sub-cellular material. So if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be an erythrocyte bobbing along a capillary here’s your chance. Bear obviously thinks it would be "awesome" whereas this pallid Brit felt it would be a quick way to say sayonara to sanity so the rhapsodies didn't quite work on me. I wanted more horror. Bear isn’t Woody Allen either so there’s no amusing dialogue from a neurotic spermatazoa, worse luck. It’s also a pity that any British schoolboy who’d seen the Doctor Who story “The Invisible Enemy” in the seventies would already have seen a sentient virus doing the rounds and even more of a pity that decades later the end result of Bear’s ruminations on the perils of fiddling with DNA would be some universally reviled Star Trek episodes, the Red Dwarf curry monster and Prince Charles getting the heebie-jeebies. Once the cells go fully sentient - and, um, conversant - it goes a bit silly on the hive-mind voiceover front (“Contact has been made…”) and Bear’s not one for providing toothsome characters to buoy us through the weirder bits but there are some fancy word pictures.

I enjoyed Bear's end of the world novels Forge Of God and Anvil Of Stars but I suspect what “Blood Music” needed was a more avant garde novelist at the wheel, someone with real literary heft to take this out of the quotidian and into the artsy. Then again this is exactly the sort of SF premise that Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro would get the horn for these days and end up larding it with high-seriousness, sentimentality and silting up the Booker Prize list so maybe we dodged a bullet. Christopher Priest might have made an interesting fist of it though, although maybe skewing more towards the memory and identity end of things. Angela "The Bloody Chamber"/"Doctor Hoffman" Carter would have done something really interesting, obviously. Unfortunately, despite the poetry of the title, Bear provides the meat and potatoes but no flourishes. Grey goo indeed.