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Brain Plague
Joan Slonczewski
Tor Books, 384 pages

Brain Plague
Joan Slonczewski
Joan Slonczewski received her Ph.D. from Yale University after graduating magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College in 1977. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Kenyon College and was the Chair of Biology from 1993-6. Before that, she was a Visiting Associate Professor at U. Maryland at Baltimore, and a Visiting Professor at Princeton University.

Joan Slonczewski Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Children Star
Joan Slonczewski Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Brain Plague, the latest novel from Joan Slonczewski, continues the story of the fictional universe she first created in A Door into Ocean, Daughter of Elysium, and The Children Star. The intelligent micro-organisms that were introduced in 1998's The Children Star are spreading through the human population of Valedon. Each colony of micro-organisms has its own culture and talents; some are artists, some mathematicians, some accountants, etc.  Some of them are malevolent, turning their human hosts into pleasure seeking vampires who slowly lose their free will to the microbes. These are the brain plague of the title.

Chrysoberyl is a young artist, struggling to mount an exhibition and pay her rent at the same time. In addition, her family cannot afford the medical help her brother needs. When she signs up for an experimental program, she becomes host to a microbe colony known as the Eleutherians. Her status as a carrier is her ticket to wealth, fame, and the upper middle class, but it also exposes her to the growing prejudice against the brain plague and its human hosts.

Much of the novel deals with Chrysoberyl's problems in dealing with suddenly having a city of over a million inhabitants in her head. The Eleutherians are creative architects -- who better to work with nanotech than intelligent microbes? They are also difficult to control, and though the microbes think of their human hosts as gods, the more they are exposed to actual human behaviour, the more they come to doubt that status. The resulting conflicts fuel the story, and force the humans who carry relatively benign societies of microbes to deal with those who do not.

Joan Slonczewski is a biologist, a Quaker, and a feminist, and those concerns are paramount in all of her work. What is different about Brain Plague is the prose. Chrysoberyl sees the world in terms of colour, and as a result Slonczewski's normally straight-forward prose style fairly shimmers with colourful descriptions. The vividness of the imagery helps to accentuate the thoughts of both Chrys and the characters who live in her. It also enhances the dialogue between the microbes and their human hosts, and brings an intensity to the story that Slonczewski has rarely managed before.

The intelligent microbes in Brain Plague also stand out in their depiction as individuals. There is no collective consciousness or group mind here, the individual microbes are just that, individuals. They share the common concerns of their society, but also have their own strengths and weaknesses. They build nightclubs, raise their children, have a taste for travel, and occasionally plot against their humans. It's this view of microbes as individuals that sets Slonczewski's vision apart from other stories dealing with the idea of intelligence in single-cell organisms.

All these factors, the microbes as individuals, the vibrant prose, and the intensity of the internal dialogue, set Brain Plague apart from the rest of Slonczewski's work. Time will tell whether this is the best of her novels, but it is certainly a most compelling and engrossing read. And in a year that has seen a dearth of first-rate science fiction novels, Brain Plague shines like the endless light that continually tempts the characters of the novel, both microbe and human.

Copyright © 2000 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson is content to only have to deal with one voice inside of his head at a time. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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