You can read this story for free, thanks to Baen ebooks (via Free Speculative Fiction Online).
It’s an encouraging sign that I’ve already read the first story in this collection. It suggests that I’m possibly not as disconnected from science fiction’s recent history as I sometimes feel, although whether you can call thirty years ago recent history. Well, I haven’t quite read this story, in fact, but did read the novel based on that came out, wikipedia informs me, in 1985. I think I was in my first year at uni when I read it, which would be 1986; I can actually remember buying it from the Huyser Bookshop in the Willis Street Village.
I remember being wildly impressed with the novel, and this story still impresses. It does everything good SF should do: it takes current scientific and technological knowledge and thinks it through to a logical conclusion. In this case, Bear raises the possibility of using molecular biology to build tiny computers and how they might interact with other elements of the eco-sphere, namely us, and Wikipedia says it was the first story to describe nanotechnology and explore the ‘grey goo’ scenario. It’s tightly written, with a good clear scientific explanation and an eye on pace and a rising sense of panic that’s wonderfully paid.
It’s exactly the type of story that Hugo Gernsback had in mind back in 1926, although maybe old Hugo had a more optimistic outlook than the average cyberpunk. In fact, it has deeper thematic connections with the golden age: Vergil is basically a mad scientist whose work is rejected by the mainstream of scientific opinion and who carries on his research in secret. It’s given an 80s twist – Vergil is dismissed from a bio-tech start up rather than the halls of academia – but the hubris and ultimate downfall are as old as the hills.
It’s a variation on the ‘things man was not meant to know’ story but instead of destruction, the new technology offers a kind of evolution, a different but no less valid mode of existence. In the story, it’s hinted at by the final paragraphs where Edward and his wife Gail begin to merge into each other. In the novel, it’s taken a step further into the kind of science fictional rapture that The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1999) compares to Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End. However, the vivid body horror made me think of the 1980s films of David Cronenberg. It’s hard not to picture scenes from of The Brood, Videodrome or The Fly while reading of Edward’s final transformation.
‘Eddie…’ she whispered. My name was the last sound I ever heard from outside.
Standing, we grew together. In hours, our legs expanded and spread out. Then extensions grew to the windows to take in sunlight, and to the kitchen to take water from the sink. Filaments soon reached to all corners of the room, stripping paint and plaster from the walls, fabric and stuffing from the furniture.
By the next dawn, the transformation was complete.
I no longer have any clear view of what I look like. I suspect we resemble calls – large flat and filamented cells, draped purposefully across most of the apartment. The great shall mimic the small.
His fate has the same nightmarish and ambiguous quality as Max Renn in Videodrome, chanting ‘Long live the new flesh.’ As with Brian O’Blivion, there’s something compelling about what the culture in Vergil’s blood is telling them. I suppose it’s a bit like the way that Lovecraft so lovingly describes the apocalypse that the old ones will bring, but here there’s less sense of terror and more of wonder. It’s an early example of the trans-humanist idea, that progress is tied to man’s ability to transform not just his environment but himself.
Themes: nanotech, mad science, transcendence, genetic engineering.