Thursday, April 28, 2011

Vitals by Greg Bear


Review written 2003
This novel left me with a sense of deja vu. Actually it didn't "leave me" so much as the impression snuck up on me as I was reading, and continued to the end and beyond. I kept wondering if I hadn't read this novel before, and just forgotten it. Given the large volume of SF I devour, it's certainly possible.

However, the most likely explanation is that this book is nearly a re-make of one of Bear's first writings, Blood Music. I can't really recall any of the details of the earlier book, but my general recollection is that the cells or mitochondria in our bloodstreams were "singing" to us, and if we just tuned in and listened to them, we'd be able to take the next evolutionary step to some sort of communal consciousness.

Anyway, Vitals is a story about two brothers, Hal and Rob Cousins, who are scientists working in the area of life extension. While on a deep sea voyage to obtain samples of primitive organisms near volcanic vents in the ocean, things begin to go mysteriously wrong for Hal. He is attacked by the driver of the sub, and strange things happen on the vessel above the waves, as well. In the wake of this event, his funding is cut, he becomes subject to more personal assaults, and his sanity is called into question.

His brother was murdered at approximately the same time, and as Hal begins to dig into material his brother had arranged to end up in his hands, he becomes involved in a conspiracy which began in Stalinist Russia. Russian biologists working with the bacteria in stromatolites (primitive fossil-like organisms) from Lake Baikal created a mind control technique which they tested on prisoners destined for the gulags. After Stalin's fall from power, the head scientist reached an accommodation with Western intelligence agencies, and a huge shadowy organization has controlled the minds of key people and thugs worldwide ever since.

Where it gets weird, tho, is that these people are actually being controlled at a far more powerful level by the bacteria themselves. It seems that the bacteria have had a worldwide conspiracy to keep the human race dying young (thereby providing fodder for more bacteria) all along. Hal and his fellow scientists who are trying to find the fountain of youth are interfering with their plan, and must be stopped at all costs.

So, as far as weird science goes, this is a provocative, thought inspiring novel. As far as the plot, character development and final resolution are concerned, I was confused and disappointed throughout. I've read quite a few of Bear's novels over the years, and enjoyed them. This is probably not his best effort.

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