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Bios
Robert Charles Wilson
Orion Millennium, 218 pages

Bios
Robert Charles Wilson
From his first novel, A Hidden Place (1986), through to his latest, Robert Charles Wilson has written a number of entertaining books. They include Darwinia (1998), Memory Wire (1987), Gypsies (1989), The Divide (1990), A Bridge of Years (1991), The Harvest (1992) and Mysterium (1994) -- the latter winning the Philip K. Dick Award. Most reviewers compare his work to that of Clifford Simak.

Robert Charles Wilson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: Darwinia
Robert Charles Wilson Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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Bios is a somewhat peculiar book. Robert Charles Wilson's previous novel, Darwinia, was, of course, a hard act to follow: stylishly written, strikingly inventive, a tale of alternate worlds that managed also to plumb the far future and question the ontological foundations of history and the universe itself. In contrast, Bios for most of its length appears slight, affectless, perfunctory, a numbly conventional work, at best listlessly competent. It could easily be a novella outstaying its welcome, too brief to lend genuine life to its numerous characters and its baleful alien setting, and, correspondingly, too long to retain the reader's interest in same. But while these criticisms certainly have merit, such shortcomings are-oddly-prerequisites for the book's success. For Bios is (it would seem) deliberately bland and uninvolving, in order that its punchline, already resounding, can have all the more impact. When at the end the gods walk on to the stage, the mortal actors who preceded them there must fade, must be as nothing. This, then, is the genuine (and brilliant) strategy of Bios: it first scrawls a soap opera, that Truth may stand out with ultimate clarity.

Wilson's template for Bios may have been the short novel "A Momentary Taste of Being" (1975) by James Tiptree, Jr., a specialist in such intrusions into mundane perception of the awesome and awful Sublime. Tiptree's story tells of a mission sent out by an overcrowded Earth to a nearby star, a mission whose members, run-of-the-mill petty squabbling humans, find that they themselves, and their entire species, are only catalysts or ciphers in the reproductive cycle of inconceivably vast galactic organisms. After the claustrophobic ordinariness of decaying life aboard ship, Tiptree delivers her revelation as an existential hammer blow, the aftermath of which is inevitable biological redundancy -- Death -- for all aboard. The particular terror of "A Momentary Taste" is indescribable, perhaps inimitable; and yet Wilson, the impeccable professional, does his best to repeat the formula.

And so he, from the beginning, contrives an eggshell future, fragile, fussy, anally retentive, an ideal candidate for ruthless shattering. After the plagues of the 21st Century and their attendant socio-economic chaos, Earth has descended into a sort of bureaucratic feudalism, by which great amorphous Machiavellian Trusts, operated by the numerous scions of a set of aristocratic Families, lord it over the peasant multitudes. The administrative mandarins operate a repressive and secretive regime, abetted by such biotechnological innovations as the thymostat, which unfailingly regulates a person's emotions in the interests of the State. As is traditional in SF depictions of such dystopian futures, some libertarian frontier types have escaped this noose, inhabiting commodious colonies in the far ranges of the Sun's Kuiper Belt; but in Wilson's hands they are suspicious clanspeople, capable and agreeable enough as individuals, but in a larger context ineffective, insular, perhaps inbred. The human race, thus petrified and divided, is vulnerable when it ventures into the interstellar unknown.

As it does -- to Isis, the Earthlike planet of another star. Factions among the Trusts have ambitious designs on Isis, far beyond mere observation and research. But Isis will have none of this: its monocellular life forms (and agglomerations thereof) have evolved to a plateau of predatory efficiency before which terrestrial immune systems quail. The Trusts and their Kuiper employees must for the most part sit high and dry in orbit, maintaining only a few surface stations elaborately defended against penetration by indigenous micro-organisms. To leave one's base is to court disaster. The human personnel stew in their confined habitats, in an atmosphere of utter dull predictability. Then a Terrestrial Trust, seeking increased influence back home, sends Zoe Fisher, a genetic prodigy of sorts, to Isis: she and her innovative protective gear are surely the means to survival in the alien wilderness. But she for the most part blunders about like the rest, engaging in a hackneyed love affair with a Kuiper scientist; and the arrival of her Stoical mentor simply thickens the intrigue. We come to seem a rather tedious species, certainly of limited intelligence, certainly of inadequate adaptability.

When the cosmic revelations come, like haemorrhagic plagues bursting through every airlock gasket, they are momentous indeed, surprising for sheer suddenness but significant far beyond that first reaction. Animal life, human life, intelligent life: suddenly these fit into a daunting new context. In truth Wilson's characters have been straw men, serving by their very frailty this burst of discovery; in retrospect, the trials of reading Bios have been eminently worthwhile. When it so powerfully exposes our pathos, banality has its place.

Copyright © 2000 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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