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Brain Plague, Joan Slonczewski, TOR, 2000, 384 pp.

Note: Brain Plague takes place in the same future as found in A Door Into Ocean, Daughter of Elysium, and The Children Star.

Joan Slonczewski is one of a select few science fiction writers who deal with the biology of the far future in a believable and exciting way. Brain Plague dismisses junky science fiction stereotypes by the truckload, the kind of futures where technology dominates and becomes disembodied from our wetware origins (a term I use deliberately in its Ruckerian sense). The closest analogy comes from Saucer Wisdom by Rucker -- one of our other grand biological speculators -- where a group of aliens, when asked to show the future of robotics, show a bunch of bumbling, broken down machines, all abandoned quickly. Instead, the aliens decide to examine the good stuff, namely, the path that biological innovations will take. Brain Plague functions in a similar way to refocus the attention in the genre, and best of all, not just in biological speculation. Along the way, Slonczewski favours us with lucid treatments of class structure, prejudice towards immigrants, sexuality, and the nature of humanity. The latter issue is probably the heart of the book, much like Slonczewski's previous books. And like some of the best science fiction, Brain Plague could be reduced to a statement as simple as "the Other is not that different from us"; the book remains irreducible because of the sheer wealth of detail and imagination on display.

Brain Plague tells the story of Chrysoberyl, known as Chrys, an artist living in Iridis, the capital city of Valedon. She creates short sequences of holographic art, like the others in her group of friends, the Seven Stars. As the book begins, Chrys is struggling as an artist, creatively and money-wise, so she accepts an experimental medical treatment which is supposed to enhance her mind. Her doctor, Sartorius, is a sentient, one of the machine-intelligences that were recognized as human many years before (in the events of Daughter of Elysium). As it turns out, the experimental treatment consists of becoming a carrier for the microscopic intelligences that were first contacted in The Children Star. Once Chrys becomes host to the Eleutherians, as this particular group of people or micros call themselves, she needs regular testing by Daeren, another carrier, and moral support from other carriers as well, such as Andra. Chrys notices an immediate improvement in her artistic abilities, as she has an entire civilization helping her out.

Unfortunately, the difficulties begin almost immediately. The plague of the title refers to humans whose micros have taken over the host's body. Micros require arsenic as their main nutrition or fuel; arsenic is a dominant element on their home planet of Prokaryon but scarce on other planets. Worse, micros have the ability to cross into a human brain and flood the neurons with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that causes the sensation of pleasure. While dopamine delivered directly to the brain might not have the side effects of other drugs, this method is extremely addictive, and the experience makes any human the mindslave of the micros. Worse yet, a cult among the micros leads the mindslaves (or vampires) to kidnap humans to bring to their Enlightened Leader on some mysterious planet.

But micros in each host do not make up monolithic cultures -- just as the humans, the Elysians, or any of the other groups, have their own divisions and disagreements. Slonczewski posits the micros in such a way that their actions are the biggest argument for their acceptance as sentient -- good or evil, they act according to their own beliefs and natures, glory in their triumphs, and wrestle with the consequences of their ignorance. The wrinkle is, of course, that they have access to the inner workings of human bodies.

And so Chrys' career flourishes, but she also becomes more involved in the struggle to help those humans who have succumbed to the brain plague. Andra is the hardliner among the carriers -- her micros are harshly disciplined and would never consider rebellion against their god (as the micros call their hosts). Chrys has a different relationship with her micros, and befriends a series of them despite their short lifespans. Her welcoming style is given credence when she rescues some micros left behind by a wounded mind slave. Rose, one of the micros that Chrys gains in this moment of compassion, is key to the triumph of the forces of reason and good at the end, while Andra's micros have nothing new to offer.

Chrys is the main character of Brain Plague, and she is front and centre for the entire book, with few if any sections from anyone else's perspective. She is a bit of naif, and some of her friends tend to look down on her. But she also possesses a wisdom beyond most of the other people in the book -- she makes mistakes, but she can win through desperate situations because of her discernment. To her micros, she is known as the God of Mercy, and it is an apt title. Slonczewski pays enough attention to the secondary characters but Chrys is clearly the centrepiece of the book.

There are several recurring themes in Brain Plague, one being biological speculation. I mentioned wetware origins earlier in my review. Like the lifeforms in Rucker's Wetware (part of the Moldies and Meatbops trilogy, made up of Freeware, Wetware and Software), the new species in Slonczewski's future are themselves biological in origin, in the sense that the organic becomes the method of choice as the information capacity to describe it becomes sufficiently advanced. Slonczewski deals less with information theory as does Rucker, but both authors have a profound understanding of the unknowable strangeness of the future. And the approximations offered by these two authors attempt to dig out the issues and the consequences of such changes. It seems that we will still be engaged in many of the same struggles -- prejudice and ignorance, lack of compassion in our personal lives, the way that power and privilege work their way into the heart of possible futures, and so forth. New arenas, old struggles, and books like this themselves part of the reimagining necessary for things to change.

Slonczewski spends a great deal of time on the theme of class differences; the matter is most acutely observed in the area of medicine. The medical care system is rigidly stratified, according to how much money you can pay. Plan One, and the doctor will be there in a few hours, maybe. Plan Ten, and you have security and a doctor on call to be at your side in five minutes. As part of the deal with the micros, Chrys joins Plan Ten and she is intensely aware of the rarefied circle in which she moves due to her talent and circumstances. As a way of assuaging her guilt, she gives Plan Six coverage to her brother, back home in the mountain village where she grew up. Her parents turn it down because no one else has such coverage -- "'Shall our son walk among them like a god?'" (152). Chrys' house Xenon offers to handle the matter anonymously, suggesting that Chrys donate enough for coverage for every child in the village. But then what about the other villages? The beggars in Spain dilemma is referenced in all but name, and the entire structure gets called into question. And there are plenty of other such moments along the way. The old line about seeing how the other half live gets a rather more accurate updating when Chrys is at a upscale restaurant: "How the other half a percent eats" (128).

Likely the most pervasive theme in Brain Plague is the nature of humanity. Various science fiction writers have used the genre as their playground, exploring this most deadly serious of issues. The field seems to be perfect as a way of demonstrating how the abstractions held in the collective mind of a civilization can mean the most concrete of differences in the daily lives of its citizens and especially those not classified as citizens. Sometimes the mill of speculation sends back an answer that is exclusionary -- as with Philip K. Dick's androids who were not human because of their lack of compassion. In Brain Plague, Slonczewski reiterates many times how important it is to look at the specifics of an individual's behaviour, instead of generalizing to groups. And the ambiguity of the future ironically also makes her point much clearer, as the new lifeforms in their splendour complicate matters for those who would label the Other. Consider this passage:

Graffiti scrawled across the nano-root of what was a city bank ten levels above -- SIMS GO BACK TO JUNGLE -- HOMO IS FOR SAPIENS. "Sapiens" was an anti-immigrant faction. Sapiens hated sentients, too, although it was less obvious where to "send back" the self-aware machines. (19).

Brain Plague becomes a story about how the various humans (Elysian, micro, Iridian) who stand for compassion and mercy work to bring people, no matter their species, together. The anti-immigrant sentiment of the Sapiens differs only in rhetoric from the reasoning of the micros controlling the vampires.

Slonczewski comes across as an earnest writer, but she does have a sly sense of humour that peeks through occasionally. She pokes fun at silly future-sports when Chrys and her doctor are considering the suitability of Chrys' friend Zirc for hosting micros: "'And he plays headball!'" The doctor considered this. 'They'll have to reinforce their homes for skullquakes'" (270). Later on, some of the micros are discussing the feelings between Chrys and Daeren, and Chrys' elevated adrenaline in Daeren's presence:

"'Adrenaline means more than fear,' said Fireweed. 'And divine love is more than adrenaline and dopamine.'

"'Certainly. There's phenylethylamine and oxytocin. Love is a most complex and difficult problem.'" (307)

Slonczewski knows that as embodied beings, our emotions are regulated by chemicals, but also that there is a separate aspect entirely apart from biology. She balances the two with a wry grin and a deft phrase.

Slonczewski even adds a bit of grim humour to the debate about humanity: some of the descriptions of prejudice reminded me, in their baroque ridiculousness, of nothing so much as Dr. Strangelove. Just as in Kubrick's savage satire of Cold War prejudice, the problem is at once sent up and plainly stated:

Chrys scratched behind Merope's ears. "What do Sapiens have against carriers?"

Opal sighed. "They hate any intermingling of human and other. 'Pollution of the blood.'" (100)

Purity of essence, anyone? In the future, the precious bodily fluids are in more jeopardy than ever!

I'll conclude with a commendation for Slonczewski's world-building. She has built her vision of the future over four lengthy books now, and such architectures are rare, especially with such believability as here. Each step along the way has been hard won, and the people of this future history can rest only briefly before new complexities must be faced. Brain Plague is the best kind of inspiration, one that does not flinch in the face of ambiguity and adversity.

Last modified: June 19, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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