Friday, January 27, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Blood Music - Greg Bear

Blood Music is probably Greg Bear's best known story. It appeared in Analogue in June 1983 and won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novelette the next year. Bear expanded the story to a full novel, which appeared under the same title in 1985. The novel attracted quite a bit of attention too, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell and BSFA. The novel is regarded as a classic of the genre, so of course I haven't read it. Based on the novelette, I think I should.

One day, doctor Edward Milligan meets up with an old classmate Vergil Ulam. Edward has a good job as an OB-GYN but Vergil has chosen a different career. He went into research and got a job at a small company working on nanotechnology. Vergil was fired after some of the experiments he tried to hide from his employers were discovered. To salvage what he could, he injected himself with some of his creations. Now, he seeks Edward's medical advice.

Bear is known as a hard science fiction writer. In this story he certainly lives up to that reputation. There is quite a lot of science in this story. Given the rapid development of genetic research, these days this story might not have attracted quite as much attention. When you consider it is over thirty years old, it must have been revolutionary at the time. Bear dives into the world of RNA, cellular biology and micromachines. What he manages particularly well is helping the reader to wrap their mind around the difference in scale between molecular, cellular and macroscopic structures and how on even the smallest level there is a huge capacity to store information.

Putting aside the science for the moment though, the tale itself is not all that exciting. Because his experiments are deemed dangerous, a scientist decides to experiment on himself. You don't really need three tries  to guess how that is going to end. Edward knows this too, and yet for some reason, he holds back on sounding the alarm. Not, as it turns out, a terribly bright thing to do. Bear does a good job of portraying Edward's predicament, but I can't say I particularly liked the character. He is quite passive throughout the story.

The really hard science fiction stories tend to be hit-or-miss for me. While I usually appreciate the subjects, quite a few of them pay little attention to the actual craft of writing. I bounced right off the first Larry Niven story I read earlier this month. Interesting science in a poorly executed story doesn't do it for me. Blood Music does not provoke that response. It is a decently written story, with a great scientific concept and a rather formulaic plot. A Hugo and a Nebula seems like a bit more praise than the story merits, but it well worth reading and it did make me wonder how Bear built upon this novelette. The to read list is growing again.

Story Details
Title: Blood Music
Author: Greg Bear
Language: English
Originally published: Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, June 1983
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Novelette, approximately 9,100 words
Awards: Hugo and Nebula winner
Available online: Baen

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