Reading Blood Music by Greg Bear

When I read with only my eyes, I often times get distracted. But when I read, write, discuss, I understand more of what I read, and most importantly I remember. Perhaps remembering isn’t all that important.

Salwowski_Bear_BloodMusicI’m reading the short story Blood Music by Greg Bear.

“Within the ranks of magnitude of all creatures, small as microbes, or great as humans, there is an equality of “elan,” just as the branches of a tall tree, gathered together, equal the bulk of the limbs below, and all the limbs equal the bulk of the trunk.”

Vergil Ulam. Before his change, Vergil had been “the pudgy, shock-haired, snaggle-toothed whiz kid who hot-wired doorknobs, gave us punch that turned our piss blue, and never got a date except with Eileen Termagent, who shared many of his physical characteristics.”

Where does Bear get names for his characters?

Greg Bear does have an article where he attempts to list the top fifty names in literature:

Number 50 is Moby-Dick. I didn’t read enough of it to see if Greg lists his own characters; I doubt it.

Vergil was working at a new corporation doing cutting edge research on Medically Applicable Biochips, MABS.

” ‘Four months and I was doing my own work. I made some breakthroughs’—he tossed his hand nonchalantly—’then I went off on tangents they thought were premature. I persisted and they took away my lab, handed it over to a certifiable flatworm. I managed to save part of the experiment before they fired me. But I haven’t exactly been cautious. .. or judicious. So now it’s going on outside the lab.’ ”

Certifiable flatworm. Much better than dumber than a lamp post.

Edward hadn’t seen Vergil in more than two years, but he remembered his friend well. “I’d always regarded Vergil as ambitious, a trifle cracked, and not terribly sensitive. His relations with authority figures had never been smooth. Science, for him, was like the woman you couldn’t possibly have, who suddenly opens her arms to you, long before you’re ready for mature love—leaving you afraid you’ll forever blow the chance, lose the prize. Apparently, he did. ” ‘Outside the lab? I don’t get you.’ “

Vergil convinces Edward, an OB-GYN doc, to run some tests so that Vergil can show him how Vergil’s body has changed. After looking at his spine, Edward describes Vergil as:

“Buckminster Fuller, I thought. It was fantastic. A cage of triangular projection, all interlocking in ways I couldn’t begin to follow, much less understand. I reached around and tried to feel his spine with my fingers. He lifted his arms and looked off at the ceiling. ‘I can’t find it,’ I said. ‘It’s all smooth back there.’ I let go of him and looked at his chest, then prodded his ribs. They were sheathed in something tough and flexible. The harder I pressed, the tougher it became. ‘See?’ Vergil asked, shrugging on the white robe, ‘I’m being rebuilt from the inside out.’ “

Vergil explains how a small protein chip was inserted into the artery of a rat and let it run it’s course, incorporating itself into the internal workings of the Rat.

” ‘We recovered the most complex microchip by sacrificing the rat, then debriefed it—hooked the silicon portion up to an imaging system. The computer gave us bar graphs, then a diagram of the chemical characteristics of about eleven centimeters of blood vessels . . . then put it all together to make a picture. We zoomed down eleven centimeters of rat artery. You never saw so many scientists jumping up and down, hugging each other, drinking buckets of bug juice.’ Bug juice was lab ethanol mixed with Dr. Pepper.”

Why. Because of my close reading of the story, I caught a line I probably would have skipped over in reading.

“He [Vergil] twiddled his finger around his ear and made theremin sounds.”

What? I read it a few times. Not knowing what a theremin is or what sounds it makes caused me to pause.lucie_rosen_playing_theremin

According to Wikipedia, “The theremin (/ˈθɛrəmɪn/;[1] originally known as the ætherphone/etherphone, thereminophone[2] or termenvox/thereminvox) is an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the thereminist (performer). It is named after the Westernized name of its Soviet inventor, Léon Theremin (Термéн), who patented the device in 1928.”

Is this instrument supposed to describe perhaps mental abilities? Acute mental manipulation abilities? I’m expecting something.

” ‘Mad scientist time, right?’ He laughed, then sobered. ‘I injected my best nucleoproteins into bacteria to make duplication and compounding easier. Then I started to leave them inside, so the circuits could interact with the cells. They were heuristically programmed; they taught themselves. The cells fed chemically coded information to the computers, the computers processed it and made decisions, the cells became smart. I mean, smart us (is the word us supposed to be as? yes.) planaria, for starters. Imagine an E. coli as smart as a planarian worm!’ ”

planarian2Planarian worm? They don’t even look real. I get to go down all sorts of rabbit holes with this story and I’m less than six pages into this 1983 short story.

” ‘Then I really went off on my own. We had the equipment, the techniques; and I knew the molecular language. I could make really dense, really complicated biochips by compounding the nucleoproteins, making them into little brains. I did some research into how far I could go, theoretically. Sticking with bacteria, I could make a biochip with the computing capacity of a sparrow’s brain. Imagine how jazzed I was! Then I saw a way to increase the complexity a thousandfold, by using something we regarded as a nuisance—quantum chit-chat between the fixed elements of the circuits. Down that small, even the slightest change could bomb a biochip. But I developed a program that actually predicted and took advantage of electron tunneling. Emphasized the heuristic aspects of the computer, used the chit-chat as a method of increasing complexity.’ “

Frankenstein being built from the inside out.

I wonder how much of a copied story infringes on copy right laws. There are so many juicy passages that I can’t help myself.

” ‘I took advantage of randomness. The circuits could repair themselves, compare memories, and correct faulty elements. I gave them basic instructions: Go forth and multiply. Improve. By God, you should have seen some of the cultures a week later! It was amazing. They were evolving all on their own, like little cities. I destroyed them all, I think one of the petri dishes would have grown legs and walked out of the incubator if I’d kept feeding it.’ “

Is Vergil a God-fearing man or starting to think that he was God or at least God-like?

Edward asked Vergil how smart the chips really were? “‘I couldn’t be sure. They were associating in clusters of a hundred to two hundred cells, each cluster behaving like an autonomous unit. Each cluster might have been as smart as a rhesus monkey. They exchanged information through their pili, Differences-between-fimbriae-and-pilipassed on bits of memory, and compared notes. Their organization was obviously different from a group of monkeys. Their world was so much simpler, for one thing. With their abilities they were masters of the petri dishes. I put phages in with them; the phages didn’t have a chance. They used every option available to change and grow.’ “

Pili? _66413229_m0900092-bacteriophage_virus-splPhages? More rabbit holes another day. My attention span is starting to fray. The phage looks like a space ship from a science fiction world.

There were spots in this science fiction that was just a tad bit too scientific. I have tried to learn about DNA, RNA, nucleotides. Nucleoprotein perhaps. Ribosome structure. I’ve only heard the phrase E. coli and wouldn’t be able to tell you anything that perhaps it’s bacteria. I still struggle with the idea that there’s good as well as bad bacteria.

Vergil becomes the mad scientist. ” ‘I kept compounding the molecules, increasing their size complexity. When bacteria were too limited, I took blood from myself, separated out white cells, and injected them with the new biochips. I watched them, put them through mazes and little chemical problems. They were whizzes. Time is a lot faster at that level—so little distance for the messages to cross, and the environment is much simpler. Then I forgot to store a file under my secret code in the lab computers. Some managers found it and guessed what I was up to. Everybody panicked. They thought we’d have every social watchdog in the country on our backs because of what I’d done. They started to destroy my work and wipe my programs. Ordered me to sterilize my white cells. Christ.’ “

For a story to be taken seriously, it must have conflict. Vergil  doesn’t care that his body has been taken over by intelligent microorganisms, but what happens when they discover his brain?

” ‘I’m not as nonchalant as I act, Edward. I’m worried. I’d like to find some way to control them before they find out about my brain. I mean, think of it, they’re in the trillions by now, each one smart. They’re cooperating to some extent. I’m probably the smartest thing on the planet, and they haven’t even begun to get their act together. I don’t really want them to take over.’ He laughed unpleasantly. ‘Steal my soul, you know? So think of some treatment to block them. Maybe we can starve the little buggers. Just think on it.’ He buttoned his shirt. ‘Give me a call.’ He handed me a slip of paper with his address and phone number. Then he went to the keyboard and erased the image on the frame, dumping the memory of the examination. ‘Just you,’ he said. ‘Nobody else for now. And please . . . hurry.’ “

The internal body snatchers.

It’s Vergil’s idea to destroy or at least control the microorganisms, but then he starts listening to them, as if he can hear them exchange ideas and become smarter and decides that they really aren’t damaging him. Edward’s not convinced.

Dr. Jekyl and Mr Hyde. Vergil is so excited.

” ‘They’re always swimming in that bath of information. Contributing to it. It’s kind of gestalt thing. The hierarchy is absolute. They send tailored phages after cells that don’t interact properly. Viruses specified to individuals or groups. No escape. A rogue cell gets pierced by the virus, the cell blebs bleboutward, it explodes and dissolves. But it’s not just a dictatorship. I think they effectively have more freedom than in a democracy. I mean, they vary so differently from individual to individual. Does that make sense? They vary different ways than we do.’ “

Blebs. Such a unscientific word.

Here and there Greg Bear plops down an image of reality. Edward is trying to keep his concerns of what’s to become of his friend Vergil. He and his wife Gail are watching the evening unfold.

“Winter starlings 5271533028_c7f167844e_zpecked at the yellow lawn in the last few minutes of light, then flew away with a rising wind which made the windows rattle.”

I don’t even know if there are such a thing as a Winter Starling or if it’s winter and the Starlings are out. For such a pain in the ass bird, they are beautiful. What is Bear trying to tell us with the windows rattling? Big birds, thin windows?

Bear does show a sense of humor in this story that could turn into a tragedy. When Gail, Edward’s wife, knows that something is on his mind and asks when he’s going to stop pretending things are normal, she asks him if he’s having an affair.

” ‘Oh, lord,’ she said, sitting up. ‘You’re going to divorce me for that Baker woman.’ Mrs. Baker weighed three hundred and sixty pounds and hadn’t known she was pregnant until her fifth month.”

When he denies the allegations, Gail replies:

“Rapturous relief,” Gail said, touching my forehead lightly. “You know this kind of introspection drives me crazy.

I know absolutely nothing about Gail, but how could I not like a character that says rapturous relief. I wonder if there’s something about her that I read and overlooked. Even in my close reading, I can take in just so much information. There is a vague recollection that Edward said he had the night available since his wife was working. Do they have kids? How could I not have noticed?

I had read and for some reason dismissed that Vergil had asked about Gail and Edward replied: “Gail was doing well, I told him, teaching nursery school. We’d married the year before.”

This is a passage that I just don’t get. Edward is trying to wrap his brain around what could be happening to Vergil. “Vergil Ulam was turning into a galaxy. How would it feel to be topped off with a trillion Chinese? I grinned in the dark and almost cried at the same time. What Vergil had inside him was unimaginably stranger than Chinese. Stranger than anything I—or Vergil—could easily understand. Perhaps ever understand.”

Is Edward really thinking about little Chinese people running through someone’s body, like that show where you can shrink and go into the body in a submarine-like vehicle, looking at organs, and watching the body start to attack the ship because it’s a foreign body. I ought to insert some ominous music right about now.

With the information, Edward begins to have nightmares; he calls them dreams. But when he dreams that New York City rapes a woman and she gives birth to little cities, that’s in the nightmare realm. And when the city attacks Gail… “The dream returned. This time the city came in through the window and attacked Gail. It was a great, spiky lighted-up prowler, and it growled in a language I couldn’t understand, made up of auto horns, crowd noises, construction bedlam. I tried to fight it off, but it got to her—and turned into a drift of stars, sprinkling all over the bed, all over everything. I jerked awake and stayed up until dawn, dressed with Gail, kissed her, savored the reality of her human, unviolated lips.”

I like stories with details. I’m lousy at writing detail, which is probably why I notice it so much.

Edward makes an appointment with a big-wig scientific researcher, Bernard, that Vergil had talked to about his self-experiment. Edward takes stock in Bernard’s loaned suit in a large hospital. “The suite was tastefully furnished, fine serigraphs midnight-blueaon wood-paneled walls, chrome and glass furniture, cream-colored carpet, Chinese brass, and wormwood-grain cabinets and tables.

He offered me a cup of coffee, and I accepted. He took a seat in the breakfast nook, and I sat across from him, cradling my cup in moist palms. He wore a dapper gray suit and had graying hair and a sharp profile. He was in his mid sixties and he looked quite a bit like Leonard Bernstein.”

Edward doesn’t like Bernard. Maybe like isn’t the word. He doesn’t trust him; he wouldn’t play on Bernard’s team if asked. After their meeting, they shook hands; Edward was surprised that Bernard was as scared as he was; certainly didn’t come across that way.

“I returned to my apartment and stayed there until noon, reading, trying to sort things out. Reach a decision. What was real, what I needed to protect. There is only so much change anyone can stand: innovation, yes, but slow application. Don’t force. Everyone has the right to stay the same until they decide otherwise The greatest thing in science since . . .And Bernard would force it. Genetron would force it. I couldn’t handle the thought. “Neo-Luddite,” I said to myself. A filthy accusation.”The Neo-Luddites Today


Up to now, Vergil is convinced that he’s the only sacrificial lamb, that no one else will be harmed and then he takes a bath and the water turns a pinkish color.  Edward knows it’s not bubble bath, but he asks anyway.

” ‘No,’ he repeated, ‘it’s coming from my skin. They’re not telling me everything, but I think they’re sending out scouts. Astronauts.’ He looked at me with an expression that didn’t quite equal concern; more like curiosity as to how I’d take it. The confirmation made my stomach muscles tighten as if waiting for a punch. I had never even considered the possibility until now, perhaps because I had been concentrating on other aspects. …’“I’ve half a mind to let the little buggers down the drain. Let them find out what the world’s really about.'”

And this is where I stop; if you are intrigued as to what happened, click on the above link and read the rest of the story by Greg Bear.


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