The subtitle of this post is “Memory, language, future: Greg Bear’s Blood Music”. The novel, an elaboration of a short story (published in New York by Arbor House in 1985) brings enthrallment, wonder, and surprisingly somewhat optimistic perspective on a chance-driven post-apocalyptic future. It is always a futile task to summarize a book, but it is necessary to do here because this post concentrates on the role of a special type of linguistic communication which relies on what may be termed bioquantic memory. Vergil Ulam, a top researcher with Genetron (La Jolla, California), performs unauthorized experiments on the gene machine. Roughly speaking, recombining mammalian genes and mixing them with viral and bacterial genes he focuses on introns and cordons, strings that do not code for protein structure, but are still alive, growing, reproducing, and clumping into groups: in other words, communicating with each other. This gets him fired, and while leaving, trying to keep at least some of them alive, he injects himself with a solution of these altered microbes. The altered lymphocytes grow in his blood and repair some of his shortcomings (pale complexion, overweight, flabby muscles, to name just a few). All is well within Ulam who listens to “Sounds. Not sounds, Like music. the heart, all the blood vessels, the friction of the blood along the arteries, veins. Activity. Music in the blood.” (p. 58). Then Ulam realizes that this cellular work is bound to reach his brain. He anthropomorphises the work of the cells: “It’s taken them maybe three, four days to figure out language, key human concepts. …They didn’t even know. They thought I was the universe. But now they are on to it. On to me. Right now. …They must have thousands of researchers hooked up to my neurons. They’re damned efficient, you know, not to have screwed me up. So delicate in there. Making changes. … Hurt them, hurt me.” (59-60). He calls them noocytes (from the Greek work noos = mind). These cells desire to overcome the human body’s material limitations and start to put out feelers – of course, doing this, they leave the human hosts who disappear, die, transform, are absorbed into other noocytes. Not everyone who is infected (Ulam shook hands, made unprotected love, touched surfaces with his sweaty hands) meets this end: very few people remain untransformed (for ex., those cognitively challenged, Ulam’s mother). Suzy, an uninvaded character, is given a choice to be absorbed into the noocyte universe and experiences the world of the noocytes through words that the noocytes have her absorb, but not only: “The words did not just form in her mind. They were accompanied by a clear, vivid series of visual and sensual journeys, across great distances, mental and physical. She became aware of the differences between cell intelligence and her own, the different experiences now being integrated, she touched on the forms and thoughts of people absorbed into the cell memories; she even felt the partially saved memories of those who had died before being absorbed. She had never felt/seen/tasted anything so rich.” (171-172). The noocytes, in their quest for knowledge, by using all the available resources, transform the North American continent. Even though attempts are made to contain the march of the noocytes, they do invade the whole world. In the process, however, they realize that they cannot completely obliterate their human hosts, and learn how to recompose materially some individuals, at least for a short while. The noocytes thrive on knowledge – both human and biological – as they collect memory of everyone ever alive. Once this happened, the Big Change occurred. the novel end with these words (in bold, as all the other noocyte verbal communcations are typographically illustrated):
Nothing is lost. Nothing is forgotten. It was in the blood, the flesh, And now it is forever.
This short description of certain plot elements does not give this amazing novel justice. The themes are wide-ranging (research, chance, mother-son relationship, US – Europe links, value of humanity); the intervening years between the novel’s publication and now add to dimensions not foreseen by Greg Bear (the role of the Twin Towers, the demise of “Eastern Europe”, the growth of transhumanism, etc.) and enrich the enjoyment of reading the book. But one of the most intriguing thoughts offered by the description of the noocytes is the fact that peaceful immortality based on human experiences is given another embodiment: the smallest micro-cellular elements can hold within their processes memories that go back very, very far, especially as far as human existence and culture allows. In other words, humanity can survive, but not in its present shape and form, and therefore there is a limit on what the noocytes can do with us as sources of knowledge. They will likely survive in their form, we will not (although our memories will thrive): and this is the limit of the optimism in the novel.
Science fiction stories depict humanity’s angsts and yearnings. Great science fiction stories illuminate and enlarge, through technological lens, Homo sapiens‘ vices, virtues, desires. What are the implications for verbal language? The answers offered by Blood Music are intriguing, surprising, but also disappointing. Intriguing, since the novel underscores yet again the fact that without verbal language (oral and written), knowledge would not progress, and hypothesizes that communication between human a non-human entities is not possible without language. The surprising aspect points out the possibility of coexistence between language and senses in a disembodied universe (humanly speaking). Disappointingly, the novel does not explain how verbal language is translated into bioquantum bits understood by the noocytes and their knowledge retranslated so that we understand them. As much as I would love to know and experience what my cells think and make of me, for now this unwritten (pun intended) connection remains in the realm of science fiction. Perhaps it’s just as well that it stays so, until Homo sapiens learns to exist without violence.