Review: “Blood Music” By Greg Bear (Novel)

Well, when I was going through a bit of a sci-fi phase a week or two ago, I looked online for sci-fi novels and Greg Bear’s 1985 novel “Blood Music” caught my interest enough for me to order a second-hand copy. And I’m glad that I did 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Blood Music”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2001 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Blood Music” that I read.

The novel begins in California, where a socially-awkward scientific genius called Vergil Ulam is working for a bio-tech company called Genetron. He has been doing some secret research into using blood cells as mini-computers. However, his boss finds out about the research and orders him to destroy it. Infuriated by this, Vergil saves a sample of his altered cells (which he calls “noocytes” – thinking cells) and begins plotting revenge against the company.

Unfortunately for Vergil, his hack into the company’s computer system is discovered and he barely has time to inject himself with the last sample of noocytes before he is thrown out of the building. He isn’t sure what to do next and ends up in a bar, where a beautiful woman called Candice somehow feels attracted to him. To both of their surprise, he is remarkably good in bed.

That isn’t all, Vergil also seems to be getting thinner and healthier too. At first, he considers his experiment a success and tries to get work at another lab in the hope that he can extract and use the noocytes whilst they are still alive. But, after the hack, he has been blacklisted by the industry. Not only that, the noocytes start having strange effects on Vergil’s body and it soon becomes obvious that Vergil has accidentally created a sentient virus. A sentient virus that has already started spreading…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… Wow! Although this novel takes a while to really get started, it is amazing 🙂 It is atmospheric, intelligent, compelling and awe-inspiring 🙂

This is one of those books that almost feels like a trilogy of novels compressed into one. It is a book that, whilst it might challenge you at times, has a surprisingly emotional payoff if you stick with it (seriously, the ending actually made me cry). It’s a novel that I probably didn’t entirely understand, but understood enough about to be amazed by it. Although this novel also contains elements from the horror and thriller genres, it also has all of the wonder and amazement that the best science fiction does.

Despite the reams of scientific jargon throughout the novel, the most interesting sci-fi elements of this novel are the scenes showing the strange world and thought patterns of the noocytes. The scenes of a continent being transformed into some kind of alien landscape, of people being copied and gaining access to lost memories from history, of inner space being as fascinating as outer space. Of reality itself being malleable and questionable. Although the novel takes a while to set all of this stuff up, it is well worth waiting for 🙂

It’s also a novel about the nature of change and innovation too, with the naively optimistic experiments at the beginning of the novel having a bit of an eerie resonance when read in this age of smartphones, social media mega-corporations, fake news and all of the other side-effects of the tech optimism of the 1990s. The focus on large tech companies near the beginning of the book (they are biotech companies, but are trendy in the way that Google, Facebook etc.. are) also helps to make the novel feel eerily prescient too.

It’s also a novel about individuality and community too. Of how a scientific discovery made by one person always involves “standing on the shoulders of giants”, how both individuality and community are important (perhaps a reference to democracy?), how we are all products of many years of human history etc… Seriously, it’s really fascinating.

This novel also has some fairly cool horror elements too, with lots of David Cronenburg-esque body horror involving people melting, merging and transforming in strange ways. Plus, there’s a bit of Richard Matheson-esque post-apocalyptic horror too 🙂

Interestingly though, whilst the scenes of people transforming are a brilliantly grotesque source of body horror during the early and middle parts of the book, this novel then somehow manages to find beauty in all of this (in a way that reminded me a little of Clive Barker’s horror and fantasy fiction).

Likewise, this novel also manages to be quite a compelling thriller too. Although it is a bit slow-paced and filled with formal scientific jargon at times, the quietly suspenseful early scenes where Vergil begins a mysterious transformation eventually morph into a worldwide geo-political storyline, which is also expertly counterpointed with suspenseful scenes of small-scale drama (eg: a young woman called Suzy who is alone in a post-apocalyptic version of Manhattan). Seriously, this story can be more of a thriller than you might expect – but don’t expect a modern-style ultra-fast paced thriller though.

In terms of the characters, this novel is better than it initially seems to be. Although the characters at first seem to be typical sci-fi stock characters (eg: the frustrated scientific genius, the beautiful lover, the charismatic businessman, the ordinary person, the doctor etc..), they gain a bit more depth and complexity as the novel progresses. This is also one of those interesting novels that doesn’t so much have one main character, but has a series of main characters that appear and disappear as the story progresses.

In terms of the writing, it is better than it initially appears to be. Although this novel’s third-person narration is peppered with bewildering scientific jargon and the occasional science lecture, the narrative parts of the story are a really interesting mixture of informal “matter of fact” descriptions and more formal/poetic/experimental narration. The mixture of these two things helps to keep the story comprehensible and compelling, whilst also allowing some parts of it to have a level of awe and wonder that you won’t find in films or TV shows.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At a gloriously efficient 262 pages in length, not a single page is wasted and the novel almost feels like three novels squashed into one 🙂 As for the pacing, although this novel would probably be considered “slow-paced” these days, it is really compelling and the story gradually builds in intensity throughout the novel too.

In terms of how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, this story is very clearly set in the world of the early-mid 1980s (eg: scenes involving West Germany, the USSR, the World Trade Center etc.. and a few mildly dated descriptions), but the actual story itself feels eerily modern in many ways. Not only are many of the novel’s weirder scenes completely timeless, but the story also seems like an eerily prescient metaphor for modern social media etc…. when read today.

All in all, this is a brilliant book 🙂 Yes, it is a little bit slow-paced at times and all of the scientific jargon might be a little confusing but, if you persevere with it, then you will be rewarded with an absolutely brilliant and awe-inspiring story 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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Review: “The Ectoplasmic Man” By Daniel Stashower (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read anything Sherlock Holmes-related. And, after a family member found three modern Sherlock Holmes novels in a charity shop and thought that I might be interested in them, I was spoilt for choice.

Since the weather was still fairly hot, I decided to go for the shortest book in the pile – Daniel Stashower’s 1985 novel “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Although this novel can be enjoyed without reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you read at least a few of them first.

So, let’s take a look at “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (but I won’t give away the solution to the mystery).

This is the 2009 Titan Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Ectoplasmic Man” that I read.

The novel begins, like most modern Holmes novels, with the author’s account of how he “discovered” a lost manuscript by Doctor Watson, detailing a meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini in 1910.

Then, we are taken to 221b Baker Street, where Inspector Lestrade makes a sudden arrival after dashing across town. Lestrade tells Holmes that he suspects a visiting American escapologist called Harry Houdini of carrying out a terrible crime. Yet, much to Holmes’ annoyance, Lestrade also tells Holmes that he has been ordered not to reveal the details of the crime.

Naturally, Holmes is curious and decides to meet Houdini. The two don’t get along well, and part on angry terms. But, later that evening, Houdini’s wife Bess shows up at Baker Street, imploring Holmes to attend Houdini’s show because Houdini has received a threatening note from an old rival called Kleppini and she fears he may be in danger. Holmes scoffs at this and points out that he is not a praetorian guard. Out of honour, Watson decides to attend the show to keep watch for any danger.

During the show, Houdini spots Watson in the audience and asks him to help out with one of his tricks – an escape from a glass box filled with water. After a bit of a mishap, where Watson takes the act too seriously and smashes the glass box with a fire axe, Lestrade shows up and arrests Houdini for the theft of sensitive royal documents. But, before Lestrade begins to take Houdini to the police station, Holmes emerges from the audience and declares that Houdini is innocent and that he shall prove it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it is brilliantly theatrical 🙂 Although the actual mystery at the heart of the story is fairly compelling, the main attraction of this story is probably the humour, the atmosphere and the characters. If you love the moments in Conan Doyle’s original stories where Holmes indulges in tricks, disguises and witticisms, then you’ll love this novel 🙂 It is delightfully amusing 🙂

Seriously, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that this novel was theatrical. Not only does this novel focus on the themes of magic tricks and escapology, but both Holmes and Houdini also get so many wonderfully theatrical moments too, much to the consternation of poor Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade.

Seriously, if you’re fascinated by things like stage magic, “impossible” feats, escapology, lock-picking, disguises etc… then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. It has a gleeful theatrical flair to it that perfectly mirrors the themes of the story.

And, as I mentioned earlier, it is also a comedic novel too 🙂 A lot of the novel’s humour is, like in Conan Doyle’s original stories, kept reasonably subtle – with most of it being found within the narration, footnotes, references and dialogue. However, this novel also includes some brilliantly vaudevillian moments of traditional comedy, such as a hilariously over-dramatic phoney seance.

The mystery at the heart of the story is fairly interesting and it includes a couple of dramatic plot twists, an intriguingly “impossible” crime and the drama of Houdini being falsely accused of it. But, even though the reader is given a few clues (which are explained by Holmes at the end) and the case itself is certainly worthy of Sherlock Holmes, this is one of those stories which is slightly more of a thriller than a traditional detective story.

In other words, it is one of those stories where the main focus is on how the crime was carried out, rather than the identity of the criminal. Even so, this allows the novel to include some wonderfully thrilling and gloriously melodramatic (if a little contrived) chase sequences, a daring prison escape and a vaguely “Charles Augustus Milverton“-style scene where Holmes and Watson break into a theatre.

In terms of the characters, they are brilliant. Not only are Holmes and Watson fairly faithful to the original stories (although Holmes’ attitudes towards women are a little bit cartoonish/two-dimensional in this story), but one of the best parts of this story is the interactions between Holmes and Houdini.

At first, the two are very much rivals – with Holmes’ scepticism and Houdini’s brash confidence putting them at odds (and leading to some hilarious dialogue exchanges) but, as the story progresses, they end up becoming quite the team. Seriously, since both Holmes and Houdini are masters of trickery, logic and theatricality, it is an absolute joy to see both of them in the same novel 🙂

Likewise, if you enjoy the definitive ITV adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes” starring Jeremy Brett, then you’ll enjoy this novel even more 🙂 Seriously, the version of Holmes in this novel is more like Brett’s interpretation of the character (eg: disguises, caustic wit, theatricality, eccentricity, Latin quotes, practical jokes etc…) than either Basil Rathbone’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretations of the character.

In terms of the writing and narration, Watson’s first-person narration is reasonably true to the original stories. However, it has been very subtly streamlined for slightly more modern audiences. Even so, expect lots of wonderfully formal and dramatic narration. In other words, this novel uses a reasonably good imitation of Conan Doyle’s style that really helps to add some atmosphere and authenticity to the story 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a brilliantly efficient 203 pages in length, this novel stays true to the focused brevity of Conan Doyle’s original novels and short stories 🙂

Likewise, the pacing is mostly good – with the story moving along at a decent pace most of the time, although there’s a slightly slow part (eg: when Watson spends a while describing an aeroplane) during what should be a fast-paced scene. Even so, the pacing of this novel is really good and it is as gripping as the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Thanks to the historical setting, the vintage-style narration and the recognisable characters, this is one of those novels that could almost have been written today.

All in all, this is a gloriously theatrical, intriguingly thrilling and wonderfully amusing novel that fans of the great detective will really enjoy 🙂 It was a lot of fun to read 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a five.