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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The Joy Of… Body Horror

2014 Artwork Joy Of Body Horror sketch

Well, since I can’t think of any good advice about writing or art today, I thought that I’d write about one of my favourite horror sub-genres and why it is such a divinely beautiful type of fiction.

I am, of course, talking about body horror. This essay might get a little bit philosophical and introspective, but I hope that it is interesting nonetheless.

If you’re a fan of the horror genre, then you’ve probably heard of “body horror” before – but, if you haven’t, then I should probably explain it briefly. As the name suggests, traditional “body horror” stories revolve around strange things happening to either the main character’s body or the bodies of other characters.

For example, traditional “body horror” stories can involve things like someone mysteriously growing an extra arm or someone slowly mutating into an alien creature etc…

However, I’d argue that “body horror” also includes stories where the main character’s body remains intact, but they discover something “strange” about themselves.

A good example of this would be in a TV show like “Battlestar Galactica“, where several of the human characters suddenly learn that they are actually cylons (a race of human-like robots that the humans are at war with) and they have to come to terms with this fact.

Not only is body horror one of the most theatrical and surreal types of horror fiction, but it is also one of the most introspective types of horror fiction too.

Whilst most other types of horror fiction focus on the main character encountering terrifying and strange things in the outside world, body horror places all of that strangeness firmly within the main character.

In other words, body horror stories are essentially stories about self-discovery, self-loathing and/or self-knowledge.

Often, in body horror stories, there is a strong contrast between the “normal” main character and the “unusual” thing that they discover that they actually are.

Usually, this contrast is intended to scare and unsettle the “ordinary” members of the audience. But, if you’re someone who is already slightly “interesting”, then “body horror” stories can take on a very different – and much more cathartic and educational – tone.

Why?

If – for example – you’re LGBT, then you’ve probably had a moment in the earlier parts of your life when you’ve suddenly realised that you’re slightly different to all or most of the people that you know. Maybe you were lucky enough to fully understand it at the time or to discover all (or part) of it gradually, but maybe you weren’t.

Maybe the first signs of who you are suddenly seemed to come out of the blue, like a dramatic plot twist – leaving you reeling with puzzled incomprehension at yourself and with no-one to explain it to you.

And, emotionally, an experience like this can be very similar to a “body horror” story. After all, in that moment, you’ve seemingly gone from someone you saw as “ordinary” to being someone you (depending on how liberal your surroundings were when you were younger) might see as “strange” or “unusual”.

Of course, this can also be true for any other form of sudden self-discovery too. But, regardless of what it is, reading body horror stories or watching body horror movies can be a wonderfully cathartic experience.

After all, seeing someone else going through something emotionally similar to what you’re going through (or have gone through) can help you feel less alone in the world.

Not only that, “body horror” stories can also be wonderfully educational in a strange way too. Seeing how fictional characters react to strange things happening to them can help you think about how you should react to it. Stories where the main character finds a way to draw strength from their strangeness, can help you to draw strength from your own “strangeness”.

And, even stories where the main character finds a way to hide their “strangeness” can give you a few pointers about how to hide your own “strangeness” if you fear that it won’t be accepted by the people around you. Yes, this isn’t ideal – but if you’re in an enviroment where you feel that your “strangeness” is unlikely to be accepted, then it can be a matter of emotional and social survival at the very least.

It should be obvious, but don’t take any pointers from “body” stories where either the main character’s “strangeness” turns out to be fatal (in any way) or where the main character somehow manages to return to “normal”. As for the first one, the world needs more interesting people like you (seriously, it’d be hell on earth if everyone was *ugh* “normal”) and, as for the second one, you are what you are – trying to turn yourself into something you’re not in order to “fit in” will just bring you nothing but misery.

I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that body horror is such a wonderful genre because it can take on a totally different meaning depending on the type of person you are.

If you’re a “normal” person, then it is just a wonderfully unsettling type of horror fiction – but if you aren’t a “normal” person, then it can be a beautiful – and almost spiritual– genre of fiction.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂