What would happen if a socially awkward genius was to tinker with his own DNA until his immune system learned to think for itself? That’s the starting point for Blood Music, which spends the rest of the novel answering the question. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers by saying it’s not pretty.
The genius in question, Vergil Ulam, is straight out of central casting. He’s the brilliant loner who is much better at solving the problem in front of him than at predicting consequences. He’s depicted in a way that suggests he brings about the apocalypse out of sexual frustration. What raises this above the usual ‘beware of the geek’ cautionary tales is that there is some rationale given for his actions; the man who failed to stop him reflects that a certain indifference to consequences is a necessary attribute for a creator because it’s impossible to predict where true innovation will lead.
Vergil sinks into the plot device by about half way through, and the consequences he neglected take over the story. That’s another point where Blood Music transcends a lot of novels that start with a flawed genius and a test tube. No lone hero steps in to save the world from Vergil’s tinkering. The consequences unfold on an enormous scale, and the closest Greg Bear comes to giving us heroes are the people who retain their dignity in the face of it.
Reading it now, I had to keep reminding myself that Bear wrote it in the mid-eighties, as the science felt as up to date as anything written recently. It was one of the first novels to use genetic engineering as a plot device, making it a pioneer in the subgenre sometimes called ‘biopunk’.
Strong as the premise is, it’s the characters who carry the story. There is no single protagonist, but rather an ensemble who fade in and out of prominence in the course of the novel. From the doctor struggling to understand what his friend has done to himself to the teenager pursued up New York’s World Trade Centre by ‘grey goo’, the characters must face the new world whether they can adapt to it or not.
The short story that Blood Music started as is available at Baen.