Greg Bear,
(Del Rey, 2002)

Vitals is the latest in a long line of solid science fiction novels from Seattle native Greg Bear. It's not as strong a book as Darwin's Radio, which deservedly picked up the 2000 Nebula Award, and I think the problem with Vitals is mirrored in the following sequence. "I walked past two closed doors, half expecting a teenager with an Uzi to come leering out and spray us with bullets. ... Anything was possible. I had been through too much to disbelieve."

Bear leads us on such a bizarre series of adventures in Vitals that in reading the book I felt not so much a willing suspension of disbelief as that my disbelief had been beaten into submission. Bear's lead character is Hal Cousins, a biologist researching the possibilities of expanding human longevity through the manipulation of the bacteria that inhabit our cells. Unfortunately for Hal and his twin brother Rob, who is independently conducting similar research, the success of their investigations could spell disaster for a mysterious organization known as Silk.

Silk emerged from a Stalinist wartime plot to control people's minds by infecting them with tailored bacteria. Stalin's communist regime may not have survived into the 21st century but Silk apparently has, and now they're out to protect their subversive techniques by stopping Hal's, and Rob's, research. And they're willing to go to any length to win this battle.

Bear has definitely adopted an X-Files, "trust no one" approach for Vitals, which he has described as his most paranoid novel. There are conspiracies within conspiracies for Hal, and the reader, to unravel. It's unfortunate therefore that Bear felt the need to tell a small portion of his tale from a second viewpoint. Ex-CIA agent Ben Bridger takes center stage for fewer than 70 pages of Vitals and the handoff didn't work at all well for me. It seemed to dilute the intensity of Hal's experience. Luckily Bear is a very skilled writer and even with the distraction of this jump in perspective, he kept me reading.

Vitals concludes with a frenetic, body-strewn pursuit of the man -- and the truth -- behind Silk. But there are no clear answers when the dust settles. Fitting for the subject matter perhaps, but not entirely satisfying from my perspective.

[ by Gregg Thurlbeck ]
Rambles: 18 May 2002

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