“Blood Music”, by Greg Bear; Startide Rising, by David Brin

My slow progress through the list of works which won both Hugo and Nebula has now taken me to the awards made in 1984 for work of 1983; two winners, both of which are based on humanity's manipulation of genetics, but in very different ways.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Blood Music” is:

He explained with his characteristic circumlocutions. Listening was like trying to get to the meat of a newspaper article through a forest of sidebars and graphic embellishments.

When I first read “Blood Music” in 2001, I wrote:

A friend of mine gave me a copy of the novel length expansion of “Blood Music” shortly after it was published. I did not really get it; the plot seemed to me to start from a very good idea and degenerate into silliness. The original short story, however, is excellent. Brian Aldiss once characterised good sf as not so much “What if…” as “My God! What if…” [actually it was Philip K. Dick] and “Blood Music” is firmly in that category.

The story begins with a classic first sentence, “There is a principle in nature I don't think anyone has pointed out before”. This leads to a couple of paragraphs of exposition of the prinicple that micro-organisms die all the time and it doesn't really matter, followed by the couplet: “That, at least, is the principle. I believe Vergil Ulam was the first to violate it.”

Our narrator, Edward Milligan, unexpectedly meets up with his old friend Vergil Ulam, who has succeeded in developing intelligence in bacteria by unlocking the information processing potential of RNA molecules. He transfers the intelligent RNA into his own white blood cells, and now finds his body being changed from within as the cells take over. Terrified by the potential dangers of Vergil's research, Edward kills his friend.

But it is too late. Vergil has managed to infect Edward with his geneticially modified microbiota, and Edward in turn infects his wife Gail. The story ends as the couple find their bodies completely under the control of the newly evolved intelligences, now expanding to take over the rest of the human world, and come to terms with a new mode of existence.

Basically Bear has taken two very ancient sf themes, the story of man's creation gone wrong (which dates back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and the evolutionary transcendence theme which is surprisingly common among hard sf writers, most notably in Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End“Gene Hive” aka “Journey to the Interior”) to create a cracking piece of narrative.

And the quality of the narrative is one reason I can't easily place “Blood Music” in the nanotechnology or cyberpunk traditions which it is said to have kicked off. Other novels I have read dealing with the theme of nanotechnology include Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, Ian McDonald's Necroville, Kathleen Anne Goonan's Crescent City Rhapsody. Not one of these books has a really satisfying ending, and since I know that McDonald and Stephenson at least can write real endings in their other books, it would seem that the gosh-wow factor of describing nanotechnology has a tendency to distract the author from conventional narrative guidelines – my fading memory of the novel version of Blood Music bears this out.

Orson Scott Card, in his introduction to the story in Future on Ice, argues that Bear cannot be a cyberpunk writer because he is an “all-around nice guy”, the implication being that real “cyberpunk” authors are not. Card's antipathy to cyberpunk is well known, so this is not a hugely convincing argument. However, given that no less than Bruce Sterling hailed “Blood Music” as one of the founding texts of cyberpunk, there is a case to answer. It seems to me though that true cyberpunk, when it deals with biological engineering, is exhilarated by the possibilities of a new technology under human control. The moral of “Blood Music” is ambiguous; in so far as Vergil Ulam's invention of molecular nanotechnology leads to new possibilities of human existence, this can only come about through an awful compromise with what used to be the components of our own bodies.

“Blood Music” gets it just right in terms of characterisation, pace and an ending which raises even further questions about the universe. Strongly recommended.

Coming back to it twenty years later, I was again impressed with the pace and skill of the story-telling, and the convincing portrait of what is frankly a rather stereotypical character in Vergil Ulam. I am a bit less annoyed by cyberpunk and stories about nanotechnology now – I must have got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. I got it in the Future on Ice anthology, which you can get hereThe Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection, which you can get here.

There was an unusual congruence between the Hugo and Nebula Best Novelette ballots that year; all five Hugo finalists were also Nebula finalists. Apart from “Blood Music”, these were “Black Air”, by Kim Stanley Robinson; “The Monkey Treatment”, by George R. R. Martin; “The Sidon in the Mirror”, by Connie Willis; and “Slow Birds”, Ian Watson. There were two additional Nebula finalists, “Blind Shemmy”, by Jack Dann and “Cicada Queen”, by Bruce Sterling. I don't recall having read any of them.

The third chapter of Startide Rising starts with two prose paragraphs each followed by reported speech in the language of dolphins. The second of each of these are:

The operator’s report confirmed the discovery made by neutrino sensor moments before. It was a litany of bad news, related in trance-verse.

* They scream and lust—
       To win and capture …

I was hugely disappointed with The Uplift War, Brin's other Hugo-winning novel in the Uplift Saga, when I revisited it a few years back. I'm really glad to say that Startide Rising maintained its magic for me. It's set in the early days of humanity's encounters with a much older galactic civilisation, where the pecking order between alien races who have genetically developed their client species is a matter of intense conflict. Humans have contributed to this by “uplifting” dolphins and chimpanzees, and the first dolphin-crewed starship, having made a epochal discovery, is hiding on an obscure planet from stronger alien forces pursuing its secret. The humans and dolphins are all very well characterised, and the planetary environment and other alien races well depicted (though the aliens sometimes slip just a little into stereotype). And Brin has put a lot of work into thinking about how intelligent creatures with completely different mindsets might work together, especially with the undertones of slavery and colonialism which are the foundation of the series. I really enjoyed revisiting it. Where “Blood Music” is “My God! What if…”, Startide Rising is sensawunda reflecting contemporary debates (as always). You can get it here.

In contrast to the Novelette ballots, Startide Rising was one of only two novels that year to be a finalist for both Hugo and Nebula; the other was Tea with the Black Dragon, by R.A. MacAvoy. The other Hugo finalists were Millennium, by John Varley; Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey; and The Robots of Dawn, by Isaac Asimov. The other Nebula finalists were Against Infinity, by Gregory Benford; The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe; Lyonesse, by Jack Vance; and The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad. The only one that I am sure I have read is the Wolfe, though I guess I must have read the Asimov at some point as well.

The Hugo for Best Novella that year went to “Cascade Point”, by Timothy Zahn, and the Nebula to “Hardfought”, by Greg Bear. The Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Speech Sounds”, by Octavia E. Butler, and the Nebula to “The Peacemaker”, by Gardner Dozois. I'm sure I've read “Speech Sounds”, and not sure about the rest. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Return of the Jedi.

Next in this sequence is a rare triplet: “Bloodchild”, by Octavia E. Butler; “Press Enter ◾️”, by John Varley; and Neuromancer, by William Gibson, which all won Hugo and Nebula awards in 1985 for work published in 1984.

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