More 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.