Blood Music is the sort of frightening novel of biological horror that Michael Crichton used to be able to write back in the good old days of The Andromeda Strain, and it helped put Greg Bear on the map in the early years of his career. In its level of sheer visceral involvement perhaps its only peers are the aforementioned Strain and the first third of Stephen King’s The Stand (the speading-of-the-plague sequence before it gets bogged down in its own apocalyptic bloat). However, like The Stand, Blood Music does lose some of its momentum as it nears its finale, becoming at times downright cryptic and trippy. But the net effect is chillingly unlike most hard SF, and Bear admirably succeeds in sounding a cautionary note without lapsing into anti-science hysteria, as so many non-hard SF writers would do.
The novel begins peacefully enough, as we meet Vergil Ulam, a loose cannon researcher working at a southern California firm called Genetron, which is working to perfect the world’s first biochips. These would be the first human-computer interfaces, silicon chips that, when introduced into the body, meld harmoniously and work together with your good old carbon based cells. But Vergil sees all this as being redundant. Since the genetic material in a cell itself is in essence one great computer, why not recombine a little DNA here and there and let the cells do the work themselves? Vergil succeeds, all too well. The human cells he is recombining become individual sentient entities Vergil calls noocytes.
Fired from Genetron for his extracurricular activites (which they don’t necessarily disapprove of; they just want to cover their butts), and ordered to destroy his experiments, Vergil sneaks the cells he has recombined out of the top secret labs the one way he knows how: by injecting them into himself. I bet you think you can see where this is leading, right? Well, don’t be too sure. Bad 50’s B-movie monster clichés are handily avoided as Bear launches us into an almost inconceivably nightmarish scenario where Vergil’s impetuousness affects not only himself, but threatens humanity completely.
The first half of the novel is close to astounding. Bear keeps everything racing along at lightspeed as he hurtles you into the unfolding horror so that you can only respond by shaking your head and saying “Oh no…oh no” over and over to yourself. But then this can be a story liability as well; as the tale races inexorably forward it can feel as if everything is happening too fast for you to catch your breath. The palpable suspense is offset by a feeling that you might want to read the last few paragraphs over again just to see if you might have missed something.
Also, as the book enters its second half, it (like The Stand) introduces us to a number of new supporting players who are among the final survivors of the bio-apocalypse. These story threads, particularly the one featuring the odyssey of a lone teenage girl wandering through a horrifically transformed Manhattan, are often indelibly haunting. But they would have been more effective had Bear introduced these characters at the novel’s beginning, just like Vergil, giving us a greater involvement in their lives before everything hits the fan, and thus drawing even greater sympathy out of us for them. Introducing a slew of new characters over 100 pages in throws off the story’s momentum just slightly, and the subsequent jumping back and forth of the narrative disrupts the excellent pace of the early scenes.
Still, this is one bloodcurdling book…literally! It has a cinematic immediacy that holds you fast despite its occasional unevenness, and it’s just unpredictable enough in its narrative twists and turns to let you feel genuine awe for Bear’s imagination. Blood Music may not be the best hard SF biothriller ever written, but it inspires a sense of wonder even in light of the frightening concepts it explores. With a little more depth of character, the novel could have made some timeless music indeed. But as it is, it’s got a great beat, and you can dance to it.