Sunday, June 09, 2013

Science fiction meets microbiology: Vitals by Greg Bear

I can’t think of many sci fi books in which microbiology is the core element of the story—actually I can only think of one, the excellent Andromeda Strain of Michael Crichton, which deals with viral infection from outer space. As to Greg Bear, author of Vitals (2002), he had the brilliant idea of putting bacteria on center stage with, as we shall see, pretty good intuitions. 

Bear is an accomplished American science fiction writer. His short story Blood Music won both a Nebula and a Hugo Award, and his Darwin’s Radio won a Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2000. He’s considered a ‘hard SF’ writer, since science has a prominent place in his fictions (which is, by far, not a prerequisite in science fiction). 

Vitals tells the story of twin brothers, Hal and Rob Cousins, who happened to be microbiologists (the story is mainly told through the point of view of Hal, but we learn about Rob via another POV character). The Cousins brothers are in their late twenties and already very successful scientists. Hal had a tenure track position in Stanford, however, at the beginning of the book we learn that he has been fired due to a redistribution of resources at Stanford. So now he’s going rogue, that is, he’s looking for rich patrons to subsidize his research and he's renting lab space for his own use—a situation that I thought unrealistic, but I read something similar recently in Science, so... Good news for Hal, his trade is the prolongation of human life, a topic that has the ear of many rich old men. In the first pages of the book we thus meet Hal on a mission to seek the secret of eternal life in the deep ocean floor…