Greg Bear, “Blood Music”


“Blood Music,” now twenty-five years old, was one of the first science fiction novels to explore the hypothetical consequences of nanotechnology run amok. It concerns the emergence, rapid development, and eventual planet-wide takeover of a new race of microbiological organisms called “noocytes.” They are created in a laboratory by Vergil Ulam, but are not entirely the product of his mind. He creates the creatures, “intellectual cells” or “cellular computers,” by creating an RNA-DNA feedback loop, effectively activating the introns (non-coding regions of DNA) of the lymphocytes he’s working with. As he explains, “With the loop in place, the cells developed their own memory and the ability to process and act upon environmental information.” (13) These introns, it will turn out, are not junk DNA, but rather encoded racial memory. The newly intelligent cells soon become conscious and begin to rapidly evolve in Ulam’s own body, where he has injected them in order to smuggle them out of his employer’s lab.

After several weeks they have transformed (“perfected”) Vergil’s body from the inside-out and begun to spread to other hosts. As they multiply and evolve, they learn to communicate with their human hosts. They have trouble understanding the macro-world, but slowly come to learn how to manipulate it. Eventually they take over all of North America, dissolving all other organisms into a new network of noocyte mass while simultaneously terraforming the continent into a phantasmagoria of shapes and structures, for unknown purposes. Michael Bernard, another infected molecular biologist, manages to escape the “plague” and isolate himself at a German laboratory for purposes of scientific research. Ultimately, the humans cannot come up with a “cure,” as the noocytes literally are their hosts, and thus cannot be separated from them. By this time, the sheer mass of intelligent noocytes have begun to take control of space-time itself through a mechanism Sean Gogarty, a colleague of Bernard’s, refers to as “information mechanics.” The basic tenant of Gogarty’s theory is that intelligent observers have an actual effect on space-time, and though the number of human has always been too few to have a measurable effect, the noocytes, numbering in the trillions and concentrated on one continent, have appreciably altered the physical laws of the universe:

“Observers and theorizers can fix the shape of events, of reality, in quite significant ways. There is nothing, Michael, but information. All particles, all energy, even space and time itself, are ultimately nothing but information. The very nature, the timbre of the universe can be altered, Michael, right now. By the noocytes.” (154)

The humans who have held out against the noocytes—yet have remained in dialog with them—eventually give in, integrating, allowing themselves to be re-encoded into molecular scale, infinitely reproducible versions of themselves. The entire noocyte civilization eventually alters the Earth itself, disappearing into even smaller scales, encoded into the very fabric of space-time itself.

“Blood Music,” then, is a novel about scale: the difficulty of translating information from one scale to another, the relationship between encoding and matter, information and intelligence. It is a question of interface. Human scientists working on individual molecules fail to understand how information and intelligence functions at those scales, just as intelligent lymphocytes have a great deal of difficulty understanding the macro-world, and macro-intelligence. Most of the novel articulates the encoding, decoding, and transfer of information between scales: back and forth, up and down. The scalar differentials explored in the novel are not merely a matter of size, but of quantity: at the molecular level, intelligence functions differently because it is an aggregate process, a question of harnessing billions, even trillions, of intelligent beings in array, forming a collective intelligence far surpassing the large, but comparatively insignificant human individual intelligence.

Nanotechnology (though the novel doesn’t use the word) is explored as a fusion of the organic and inorganic, biology and physics, as inherently effecting interfaces between thought and matter. This is to say that any interface between the macro- and nano-scale involves an exchange of information: to manipulate is also to pass information, and to receive it. The consequences of this process are not immediately foreseeable, for we have not yet learned to think on the nano-scale.

Bear depicts the noocytes as incommensurably superior—in intelligence, cooperative ability (Europe and Russia fall into civil unrest and warfare while the noocytes cooperate as a massive grid), and technological might (they terraform a continent in a matter of weeks, learn to disable nuclear ICBM warheads, etc.)—to their macro-scale, human counterparts. Indeed, the novel makes clear that any resistance to their eventual takeover is utterly futile. And yet, they do not appear to be hostile: however horror-producing the sight of deformation is to humans, the noocytes are creative, not destructive. They even appear to be benevolent, communicating to a recalcitrant host, Suzy:

Healed you
Cherish you
” (169)

There is no use fighting something you can’t see or understand. Smaller is stronger, faster, better. And if they aren’t really benevolent after all, if they are in fact merely highly evolved parasitic liars? Well, love is blind…


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