The nerdgods must be crazy, pt 2: SFaaNM and Blood Music (1985) by Greg Bear

BloodMusicMore from the nerddoomdeification category, Blood Music (1985) is Greg Bear’s multi-award-nominated and later SF Masterworked sci-fi novel about nanotech apocalypse by the hands of one single, sociopathic nerd. Like The Terminal Experiment (1995) that I discussed last week (to everyone’s terminal boredom, if the crickets were any indication— please bear with me, Zelazny is almost on deck), Blood Music relies on the actions of a sociopathic nerd protagonist to test out a dangerous and untested scientific hunch, with little thought or regard for the consequences. Another individual depicted as deity, if you please.

Rogue scientist and lonely nerd Vergil Ulam (as in, “I am your cellular Virgil. Welcome to the inner circle of the command clusters,” yep) is fired by his corporate lab for underhanded shenanigans, but not before he grows his own nanobot lymphocytes on the company dime. He injects them into his arm just before he is escorted off the site, and promptly attracts a hot chick who beds him and immediately moves in. Vergil doesn’t realize his sudden case of sexy awesomeness is related to the nanocytes until his teeth straighten on their own and he develops a perma-tan that’s not Donald Trump-orange. (The noocytes have a White bias, but who can blame them when the entire Blood Music world is White.) But the noocytes’ ideas of human self-improvement don’t stop there and, after perpetuating themselves through fluid exchange, like a virus, the nanocytes break down human matter while retaining and absorbing the consciousnesses of all but a tiny fraction of humanity living in the Americas, casting grey goo nanomounds across the landscape, and transmitting a hivemind sense of reverance for their progenitor and first victim, Vergil.

Unlike Terminal‘s Peter Hobson, it’s clear from the beginning that Vergil’s social destructiveness is an intentional character flaw. His isolating focus on his work, disregard for other people, his opportunistic use of lab resources, and strangely codependent relationship with his mother point toward a dangerous sociopathology from the beginning. Vergil’s bald manipulations are front-and-center, but his motive is never quite clear: his internal thoughts hint at a desire for scientific glory, but he’s certainly not pursuing the betterment of humanity. Moreover, once he realizes the dangerous potential and easy spread of his nanocytes, he raises no alarms, and allows events to take their course. He also doesn’t bat an eyelash when it becomes apparent that the nanocytes revere him as their godlike creator.

In other arcs, an infected corporate science boss escapes to Europe for quarantine and further study, where Vergil appears to him in a noocyte vision and he eventually succumbs to a future of hivemind grey goo composting. Meanwhile, some rare and few (and disposable) survivors in the Americas are confronted by their own fears and reluctance to join the transhuman nano-future. Near the end, European officials fly over the transformed landscape of the Americas, noting fresher, nano-filtered air and an optimistic horizon…

It’s that final optimistic note that throws into doubt the sense of horror that seems at most times intentional. I don’t know. Is the final sense of optimism intended to be irony? It’s hard to tell when there’s nothing else particularly artful about the rest of the novel (unless you count the clunky “Virgil” allusion). Generic writers can be so hard to read.

It’s an uneven and blandly-written thought experiment full of wedged-in moments bonded together by its own grey goo– a hint at Blood Music‘s first life as an award-winning novella. The cover blurb compares it to Childhood’s End, though I don’t see how, while reviewers tend to compare it to the work of Michael Crichton (which probably deserve its own “nerd gods” post, but even my sense of completionism has its limits). I guess if we’re playing nerddoomdeificationKnockOut, Blood Music beats The Terminal Experiment for its (possibly?) self-aware sense of horror, though the optimistic climate change endnote seems to overturn that. Still, I think I’ll stick with Ballard for all my dark and uncomfortable transhumanism needs.

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32 thoughts on “The nerdgods must be crazy, pt 2: SFaaNM and Blood Music (1985) by Greg Bear

  1. Warstub says:

    Hey! We talked about stuff!!

    …it just didn’t happen to be about the novel itself

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  2. antyphayes says:

    I’ve only read the original short story and thought that it was just ok. I can, however, see the similarities with Childhood’s End. Both deal with the idea of evolutionary forces (of a sort) beyond the control of humans, even if Clarke’s version is the more interesting and elegaic in its tragic sense of the end of “man”.

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  3. Warstub says:

    I always thought Blood Music compared to Childhood’s End through the mutation of humans into some greater being, as was the suggestion in the final pages of Clarke’s novel – does Bear not give clear indication of that? (I can’t remember – again, a teenager when I read it).

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    • My basic response is in the reply above, but yeah. If I were to give Bear any credit, I would say the whole “horror, horror, oh, a solution to climate change” aboutface would suggest that he’s pointing out that we are already engineering our own demise and waiting for any quick fix isn’t going to be the best solution.

      …but if that’s the point, then he would need to build and layer some allusions to climate change and human self-destruction throughout the entire narrative and not just post that idea at the end.

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      • I don’t get how grey goo is a solution to climate change. Technically it is, but I’m assuming people unhappy with climate change are actually worried about a potential loss of biodiversity, not the climate of a lifeless planet. Grey goo is presumably a 100% loss of biodiversity, maybe even down to the bacterial level. No amount of climate change could achieve that.

        Am I missing something from the story?

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        • I’m sure the idea is to suggest that the absence of humans results in the absence of human-driven emissions, thereby reversing the damage to the atmosphere. The story ends with sentient nanobots “populating” and grey gooing the Americas, and it ends with an optimistic tone of transformation, though I think that’s intended as ironic horror. As I remember, the other continents have escaped the horror, though Europe’s situation looks uncertain.

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  4. thebookgator says:

    I feel like I should be looking for the Coke bottle hidden in your review…

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  5. liminalt says:

    I’m always dismayed when someone reviews a novel I read ages ago and I realise I don’t remember a thing about it! Then I remembered that I can’t have been more than 17 when I read this and felt slightly better about my forgetfulness. I vaguely recall reading Blood Music at the time that I thought the science-into-the-future extrapolation was actually not that bad for the time (well, apart from the nanobots taking over the world, that got a bit too extrapolate-y for me) but it suffered from poor characterisation.

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    • Warstub says:

      For the same reasons I don’t feel so bad about having liked the books back then. Having said that, I did think Moving Mars was a huge bore. The Eon sequence, as with many SF novels from the 80s were all about scope, and the bigger the ideas, the wider this 17 year old’s mind was expanded!

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      • Moving Mars had the political element that kind of reminded me of KSRs Green Mars, and it had a female protagonist, so there was more going on to keep me semi-interested. Plus, the characters were young, so it felt a bit YA, which best suits his writing skills. I didn’t mind it so much until the computer hocus pocus at the end which resulted in a LITERAL moving of Mars, wth.

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      • liminalt says:

        I think I underestimate how much my tastes have changed over the years: I got into science fiction at a young age, 10 or so, and there’s a whole load of books that I loved in my late teens and early twenties that I’m pretty sure I’d be distinctly underwhelmed by now.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Warstub says:

          Yeah, I don’t know if I’d be underwhelmed or just straight up bored. This is why I’m happy to not go back to them and just let reviewers like Megan ruin them for me 😉

          Books like Eon (Bear) and A Fire Upon the Deep (Vinge) live on as great leaps of imagination that continue to astound me. Afterall, they are written on the basis of the ideas themselves, not the human drama – I forgive them for that, but they still deserve the criticisms they get.

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    • If you were 37 when you had read it, you still wouldn’t remember anything about it. It’s forgettable. I agree that the characterization is two-dimensional, too.

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  6. marzaat says:

    Way behind in blog reading as well as reviewing.

    I remember liking Blood Music the novel a lot.

    I’m glad you mentioned the strange relationship Vergil has with his mom. I remember that the most apart from the end.

    I think it’s that transcendence theme that gets the Childhood End’s comparison though Blood Music seems creepier.

    In fact, the horror element is much more pronounced in the short story.

    I read Blood Music when it was new, and I didn’t make notes on stuff, so I have no review in the archive; however, I will shortly post a review of the collection it appears in as well as Paul Preuss nanotech novel, Human Error.

    Liked by 1 person

    • antyphayes says:

      Yeah to be fair to the short it’s end was unremittingly bleak – that is if you don’t dig being transformed into grey goo. Surely there is a specific sub set of the singularity-religion that worships this shit?

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you also saw the weirdness in that relationship between Vergil and his mother. Too odd to not be important.

      Yes, the transcendence of Blood Music is creepier, while Childhood’s End is decidedly optimistic and humanistic. It helps to know the short story is creepier in tone, which best addresses my confusion as to whether this is supposed to be horror or not.

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  7. […] over at From Couch to Moon recently reviewed Greg Bear’s Blood Music. I didn’t write up a review for that novel, but I thought I’d drag out some Greg Bear […]

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  8. […] new FC2M series! The Gods must be Crazy: The Terminal Experiment (1995) by Robert Sawyer and Blood Music (1985) by Greg Bear, in which I did a two-part piece about books starring sociopathic nerds, while […]

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  9. […] Blood Music by Greg Bear – This bad scientist guy develops a smart nano-virus that he injects and spreads to others, thereby propelling humanity (or, at least the Americas) into a post-tech evolution that eventually inundates the US with smart grey goo. Sounds like a strong story, but it turns to mush, making it another story that could also be done better in the hands of a stronger writer. (It won the BSFA Award, and was nominated for the Nebula, so I am clearly in the minority here.) […]

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