Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Greg Bear

Immortality never really loses its attraction amongst those of us who don't have it. Hal Cousins is a scientist searching for a way to defeat the inevitability of death, and he's looking in some unexpected places. In the depths of the Pacific he has found primitive lifeforms that seem to hold the key to having a vastly increased lifespan.

Bacteria dominate our bodies and appear to regulate our decline into old age and death. In Vitals we discover that bacteria have a collective mind and tell not only each other but also our own bodies when we are clapped out and closer to death. It sounds like the craziest of conspiracy theories, but like a lot of Greg Bear's work it's rooted in cutting edge science. This realism makes it all the more compelling. Skip to the acknowledgements at the end and Bear explains where the science stops and the speculative fiction begins.

However Bear isn't content with just the one conspiracy. Hal's research is rudely interrupted when his colleagues fall ill, and for no discernible reason people around him become psychotic and homicidal. Several inexplicable deaths take place, with Hal as the only person connecting up these apparently random yet bizarre events. Soon he finds himself without funding or support, a pariah whom nobody will employ or even socialise with.

Then Hal meets Rudy Banning, a paranoid Holocaust denier, and he learns that the situation is even more desperate than he suspected. Banning shows Hal how to escape the influence of those who want him dead, and how to preserve his sanity whilst staying alive. What follows is a thriller involving a mysterious organisation known as Silk which seems to be pulling the strings of all levels of American society, right up to the president.

Hal has an identical twin, Rob, who has also been working on microbes and anti-aging. They live in different cities and rarely speak, but Rob has also been targetted by a nefarious faction, possibly also Silk. The events of the present seem to be linked somehow with a series of gruesome human experiments that took place in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s.

In the second part of the book we meet Ben Bridger, an old historian and ex-naval intelligence officer. He is about ready to join his wife in the afterlife when Rob Cousins contacts him. This section takes place a little earlier than the first part of the book, presumably because chronological order is for wimps. Rob and Bridger soon find themselves on the run from hostile agents and up to their necks in murder and bacterial gloop. Vitals spans most of the 20th century and an international setting, and as a result it features a lot of characters. Eventually it becomes hard to keep track of all of them, and some of the minor characters might as well be interchangeable.

To begin with the science in Vitals is clearly explained, and it draws the reader into a compelling story. But Greg Bear has tried to weave too many strands into this tale, so after a promising start it ends up overly complex and confusing. The characters are too numerous too underdeveloped to be interesting. By the end there are a few loose ends left hanging, and the way it finishes raises at least as many questions as it answers. It's a somewhat frustrating finish to what is otherwise a high-octane, intelligent book that makes you want to go out and find out a lot more about those sinister microbes.

Book Details

Year: 2002

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

If you like this, try:

Toxin: The Cunning Of Bacterial Poisons cover    

Toxin: The Cunning Of Bacterial Poisons by Alistair Lax
How bacterial toxins break down our defences so effectively, and the stories of people who have struggled to understand them.

On cover    

On by Adam Roberts
Tighe is a young man who has lived his whole life on a vast wall, in this high-concept post-apocalyptic novel.

Salt cover    

Salt by Adam Roberts
People set off on a journey to colonise a planet of salt, and make a new life for themselves.

3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

More reviews of Greg Bear books