Beware, there are some things in this review to spoil some surprises if you haven’t read it yet. It’s worth reading, OK (and did pick up both a Hugo and a Nebula, so it’s not just my opinion).
The first third to half of this felt like you were sitting in a taut, well made thriller film. Virgil is a classic tool to set up an action/slight SF plot – a gifted geneticist, socially inept, is caught out doing shonky private research on the company time, and in a classy scene told he has two hours to destroy all his stuff. He manages to hide the most crucial enhanced ‘learning’ cells he’s been working on, but eventually can only smuggle them out by injecting them in his own body – a crazy act, but he can’t bear the thought of losing years of successful research. The stuff will probably die anyway, although of course it shouldn’t have been let out of carefully quarantined conditions. All this presented skilfully, with the pseudo-scientific dialogue (how would I know) not abusing your suspension of disbelief.
Of course weird things start happening, and he calls on his friend (and seeming ideal hero vehicle), Edward, a Doctor and Harrison Ford style intelligent and resourceful (but still sort of everyman) figure. Has Virgil potentially unleashed a deadly virus? And who are these suspicious CIA types in the background – there was actually defence research secretly happening at Virgil’s lab: are we squaring off for a standard little man against the establishment, using his wits to unravel the mystery while on the run, finally using whatever the discovery is to cleverly resolve the book? There’s even a powerful potential mini-resolution relatively early on that Bear could have built up to as a satisfactory conclusion.
I would have enjoyed that, and I’m pretty sure he could have pulled it off nicely.
But the novel veers. First into, “Oh, ok, he’s sliding into Spiderman territory: the microbes in Virgil’s body are reconstructing him, making him invulnerable to disease, attractive to women, and giving him superhuman powers.” Again, not what I was expecting, but, sure, lets run with it.
But then the novel careers. We’ve got a plague on our hands – that casually wipes out North America in a couple of days. We’re now in a holocaust novel following around a few anomalous survivors. Meanwhile, over in Europe, a researcher has bravely taken his infection to an isolation tank so he can be studied as he dies. He starts communicating with the cells within him – they are intelligent and myriad.
The scope just keeps growing – now the cells are challenging our view of humanity: they’re more like an alien species with Godlike powers. It’s an odyssey, with basic questions about reality and life and identity.
Quite a ride – a writer who could put out a very decent thriller who is an SF thinker at heart – he keeps on throwing in new, “Yeah, but what if’s” along the way, any one or two of which would probably sustain a whole other book for someone else. We do lose out a bit on character, perhaps, because of this, but the people are not gallingly one dimensional, and are enjoyable as the sort of larger than life people you’d expect to meet in a decently cast slick film. Somehow, while not being as tight as it could have been, the book manages to cohere while wildly changing direction.