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Bios, Robert Charles Wilson, TOR, 1999, 208 pp.

Note: This review contains extensive spoilers, revealing and discussing the ending of Bios. My short review would be: Bios is entirely different than other Wilson books, but is just as highly recommended.

***

Bios begins with an act of rebellion. A young woman named Zoe Fisher is destined for service on Isis, a recently discovered planet that is classified in its entirety as a Level Four "hot zone" (as the inside jacket blurb informs us). Before Zoe leaves the solar system, she is secretly operated on by a woman named Anna Chopra. Anna removes Zoe's thymostat, the regulator of her biochemical system (i.e. emotional repressor). Chapter One begins with Zoe's arrival on Isis, and her dealings with the complex group of scientists and administrators who work there. The Trusts, the corporate hegemony on Earth, are funding the Isis Orbital Station and the two stations onplanet, in hopes of gleaning new pharmaceutical knowledge from the alien lifeforms. Because she is not emotionally regulated, Zoe develops a kinship with Tam Hayes, station manager and senior biologist. One of the first encounters we have as readers with the Isian bios is Hayes' attempt to rescue a co-worker whose suit malfunctioned while out on the surface. After the inevitable funeral, Tam and Zoe explore the surface of Isis and the nearby colony of indigenous lifeforms known as diggers, through the use of remensors (remote sensors). Zoe goes on her much-awaited solo trek onto the surface, and after that particular expedition, the plot becomes a rapidly escalating series of disasters. Both stations onplanet are compromised and abandoned, and then the Isis Orbital Station as well. Meanwhile, Zoe has been taken under the digger colony and Tam has gone after her.

"We have a lot to learn" (208).

This is the concluding line of Bios. By this point, the reader could be excused quite a sense of confusion. All along, Bios has talked the talk of a hard science fiction novel, and in fact I can't think of a more perfect example of scientifically informed prose that is literate and highly polished (Kim Stanley Robinson included). But when it comes to walking the walk, Wilson has a number of tricks up his sleeve, some nasty and others which have been telegraphed from the beginning. The main example of subversive behaviour here is the structure of the narrative. If the plot of a hard science fiction novel is constructed in such a way that all is revealed by the ending and various cosmological mysteries solved, then Bios is the farthest thing imaginable from such a novel. I consider this fair warning to hard science fiction fans, as this book is seductive as much as it is subversive. As the characters march lockstep to their doom, we are willing participants in their general folly. As they act like the heroes of countless pulp adventures -- the brave humans on the frontiers of the alien -- we understand how the script will end. Manly scientist puts his arm around the formerly-screaming bimbo, as they gaze down at the carcass of the dead alien. I'm exaggerating to make a point, and I am well aware of the difference between pulp and hard sf. But I would maintain that somehow encoded in the thrust of the hard science fiction narrative is the assertion that science (i.e. human science) conquers all. Wilson is here to tell us that something is wrong with this picture. Unlike some of Lem's works, which are distinctly satirical in format, Wilson is in stealth mode here, with his canny use of the lingo of hard sf.

And if fiction changes how we act (or at the very least, our expectations of the stories that motivate us), if we get any sense of warning from science fiction, then Wilson is doing the best possible work here. Wilson works hard in order to not anthropomorphize Isis. Isis is menace, on a scale difficult to imagine, but this is not the war against the other which we can win by extinguishing differences among ourselves, nor is the scorched earth approach going to succeed in bringing about understanding (and I'm contrasting Bios with Heinlein's Starship Troopers here). What must change in order for a human to humbly say, "We have a lot to learn"? The structure of this future Earth society (which I'll describe in more detail in a minute) represents a certain inability to comprehend the Other, and the repressive Trusts structure has to break down before learners can visit Isis.

It's no surprise that the characters are sympathetic and fleshed out carefully. We care for them, as in every Wilson novel. That Wilson then puts them into a deadly situation, and one that follows its premises with incredible rigour, is especially cruel and memorable. Everyone, from Kenyon Degrandpre the manager to Corbus Nefford the doctor, from Avrion Theophilus (the Trusts' troubleshooter sent to Isis) to Elam Mather (one of Zoe's few friends on Isis), everyone is doomed to die. They will die, slowly and inexorably. We learn much about them along the way, especially Theophilus and his past dealings with Zoe. She remains the centre of the novel, along with her relationship with Tam. But the last line of the novel is not uttered by any Zoe or Tam; that privilege is reserved for someone alive 150 years later, someone who has survived the downfall of the Trusts.

None of Wilson's previous novels are set as far in the future as Bios. With that in mind, it's fascinating to look at the society that he creates. Earth is controlled by the Trusts, which are in turn controlled by the Families. If you are born a Family member, you have immense power. If you are a mid- to high-level manager in the Trusts, you are likely to be male, and likely to have undergone voluntary castration so that you are allowed to deal with Family members. The Trusts are divided into two rival branches, Works, currently in ascendance at the time of Bios, and Personnel and Devices, the rogue branch. There are also Kuiper belt humans, who were gen-engineered under a process which back-fired. Kuipers are controlled by the Trusts, but under great resentment. All of this together forms a grim picture of the future, and a vivid one at that. However, the image of castration is only the logical extreme of the depictions of bureaucratic and corporate control we are familiar with from Kafka and Dilbert.

Finally, I would like to mention the lovely cover art by Jim Burns. Burns captures a number of interesting things about the book, in his depiction of the scene of Tam and Zoe's remensor expedition across Isis. Isis and Isian lifeforms are beautiful and bizarre at once. The dragonfly shape of the remensor is ambiguous, if not somehow foreboding. This edition as a whole is wonderfully packaged, design-wise, and I like how the art wraps around to the inside of the jacket.


Last modified: January 7, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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