A Master Class in Perspective: Greg Bear’s Blood Music

I hate movie trailers. There’s always a point where I tell my wife, yes I’ll watch it. Just don’t show me anymore. Don’t spoil it!

It doesn’t matter. Every time I get to that point, it’s already too late. 

Maybe buying Greg Bear’s Blood Music without reading a single synopsis or review was a mechanism of the same aversion. I saw that the story was a Hugo and Nebula Award Winner, and I’d never read anything by Bear before, so I thought, might as well start here. It’s got a cool cover, right? 

Maybe it’s in part that I approached the novel completely in the dark that I found it more surprising than any novel I’ve read in recent memory. Bear puts on a master class in perspective and the plot is unknown to the characters, so they can’t tip their hand or offer clues. Major characters die or disappear along the way and the book just keeps going, allowing the reader to be swept along by something bigger and impossible to figure out until the very end, which is very satisfying. The plot fits the theme of the novel, but it’s not allegorical.

I wish everyone would read this novel blind like I did so they could have the same mind-blowing experience. Stop reading this and just go get a copy. I’m begging you.

Published in 1983, the novel was timely in its day and is still relevant in 2021, because it follows an outbreak of a bioengineered plague created by Vergil Ulam, a sort of savant biochemist experimenting with DNA to unlock its memory, something not in line with his company’s goals. He’s a fraud with fake credentials, but not a hack. He’s even credited by everyone as a genius, but the truth is no one likes him and when his little side project that involves his own lymphocytes gets found, he is let go and must clean out his lab.

Rather than destroy the lymphocytes, which have demonstrated a level of intelligence close to rhesus monkeys, Vergil does what no self-respecting lab worker would ever do: he injects the cells into his own blood to save his research. 

What harm can his own modified cells do? Well, it turns out, a lot. 

Vergil immediately starts to change, succeeding with women where he had failed in the past, becoming smarter and leaner than ever as the lymphocytes begin recoding his DNA, unlocking his true potential. When Vergil suspects something is wrong and recruits his former college friend to do an MRI, he’s barely recognizable. Hard ridges and lines have formed where the lymphocytes have strengthened his skeleton, or perhaps tried to create new neural pathways on the surface of his skin and, what’s more, Vergil is hearing voices. The lymphocytes inside him are not just taking over, they are evolving. Talking to him. Conversing.

It doesn’t end very well for Vergil, which is perhaps the only thing that is expected in the novel, but all of these events only take a third of the book.

The pages keep turning effortlessly as Bear follows those who Vergil infected, using the third person perspective to keep going like a virus after the host has expired. It’s this melding of thematic material and plot that is perhaps most impressive. As the characters fall, the arc of the novel keeps going. The perspective shifts, but we feel grounded and close to each character. 

I don’t want to say anymore. Just, trust me. The rest of the book is good. Damn good. 

Skip the movie trailer and just watch the film already. 

Categories: Book Reviews

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