Sunday, December 31, 2006

Science Fiction - "Blood Music"

Blood Music (by Greg Bear) tells a story of a brilliant, but quirky, bio-researcher Virgil Ulam. At the begining of the book Virgil is in trouble at work. He had strayed from the worked assigned to him and instead developed intelligent cells. When his boss finds out about his extra-cirricular projects, he orders him to shutdown it down and destroy all bio-matter. Virgil manages to keep a small sample of the super-intelligent cells in a fridge, and when he is fired from his job he injects himself with the organisms - with the plan to extract them when he gets a job at another lab.

Unfortunately, Virgil gets black-listed by his former employer, and is unable to quickly find another job. Meanwhile, his creations multiply inside his body. Initially there seems to be no particular effects of the injection, but after a week or two Virgil notices that his body is "improving". His health gets much better, he taste changes and he looses weight. His stamina increases greatly - a fact appreciated by his new girlfriend.

But all is not well. Eventually Virgil begins to observe unusal effects within his body - for example a network of white lines just under the skin. Eventually he stops going out all together. In the end of the first part of the book, Virgil seems to go insane - he has "conversations" with the beings livining within his body - and eventually he seems to dissolve into a pile of bio-matter.

This is not where the book ends though. Turns out that the micro-organisms that Virgil created spread to others via exchange of fluids (including sweat).

The second part of the book describes what happens to the world as Virgil's organism spread across the North American continent. This part of the story is told from several differnt points of view. There were few people in North America that were resitant to the "infection", a girl in Brooklyn and few hippies in San Francisco.

Another person was a friend of Virgil who gets infected, but manages to get himself to a lab in Germany. There he is placed in isolation chamber. He experiences a slow transformation from a human being into the new kind of organism. Eventually, as he transforms, he is able to communicate with his "invaders". Although the "invaders" consider him to be the entire "universe" and are suprized to discover at some point that there is an "outside".

This was an odd book to read. It went from experiences of a single person to a collapse of the world. At first, I didn't like the world-wide disaster that Virgil caused, but the story was engrossing that I continued reading.

In the end it appears that the age humans has finished and the new intelligent micro-life took over.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Science Fiction - "Eden"

"Eden" is one of the earlier books written by S. Lem. It was first published in the 60s. The plot is simple - a spacecraft crashes on the planet Eden, and the crew works on survival and repair, and little exploration. Eden is civilized, but our explorers have hard time figuring out what is going on.

For me the strength of the book lies in its descriptions of the alien planet, its plants, animals and the local intelligent beings. The crew calls them "doublers" - as they appear to be a combination of two different bodies.

The first order of business after the crash is for the crew to find some drinkable water, as the ship's supply is mostly radioactive, and all purifiers are not yet working. This leads to initial explorations of the planet. They find some weird plants that can hide under the surface when disturbed, they discover breathing plants - they name these "lung trees".

On one of the first trips they stumble upon a "factory" - a large structure that seems to be making something, but they are unable to divine the it's purpose. The Engineer follows through the process, but the production process just seems to loop on itself - producing objects that are at the end thrown in the input hopper.

One odd thing about the book is that the characters do not have names, but are referred to by their function. We have the Captain, the Doctor, the Engineer, the Physicist, the Cybernetist (to manage the robots), and the Chemist. We only learn the real name of the Engineer - Henry.

As the story progresses the crew makes a contact with the "doublers", but not particularly successful. As they accumulate observations they are unable to make any sense of what is going on. This, I believe, is the main point of the story - we as humans would have a very difficult time trying to explain a completely alien culture. We naturally tend to apply human patterns, and on an alien planet they do not make any sense.

Lem explores this idea in several of his other books: "The Invincible", "Solaris" and much later in "Fiasco". Of these, "The Invincible" is my favorite.

The beings on Eden appear to fence in and attack the crashed ship, but in the end our crew is able to leave Eden. Just before the departure, they do establish contact with a doubler, who appears to be a scientist, but the communication between them is imprefect and they get only an inkling of what has happened on Eden.

I liked this book, because it explores the idea of communication between us and aliens without the benefit of a universal translator.