Bios, by Robert Charles Wilson / ****

robert20charles20wilson_1999_biosI’ve read several books now by Robert Charles Wilson, and really enjoyed them all; he’s an author who specializes in the wider implications of his ideas, exploring the cultural, societal, and even religious ramifications of his various concepts. Virtual reality worlds, time-traveling warlords, alien contact – Wilson takes them all and explores them in rich, fascinating detail, letting us see how we, as humanity, might deal with those events.

All of which left me fairly unprepared for Bios, which feels wholly unlike anything else Wilson has ever done; it’s a slim volume, and one more anchored around the emotional journey of a single character than humanity as a whole. That’s not to say that Wilson’s usual broad brush doesn’t appear here; it’s just that instead of focusing on humanity’s reaction to something monumental, it’s used to create a rich, complex alien world, one that’s evolved through history to support all kinds of life – except that every bit of that life seems intent on repelling any human contact whatsoever.

What’s actually going on is a bit more complex than that, but by and large, that’s the story of Bios: an expedition by humanity to explore a hostile alien environment goes slowly, horribly awry. But Wilson anchors his story in the perspective of a young woman who’s been genetically engineered to survive such environments; from birth, she’s had her emotions regulated, her immune system tweaked, and so forth…except that in the opening chapter, her emotion regulator is destroyed in an act of sabotage, leaving her adrift in a sea of new feelings she’s unprepared for. And between the apocalyptic conditions on the planet Isis and her fluctuating emotions, our heroine comes to realize that the universe is a very different place than she assumed.

Bios, even if it’s simpler and leaner than most Wilson books, is really no less ambitious, although it takes a while to understand how that’s the case. Suffice to say that, by the book’s end, Wilson is exploring the nature of life in the universe and our place in it, and doing so in a surprising way. The problem, though, is that those ideas never quite gel with the book around them, which is basically a disastrous exploration book. It almost feels like the middle book in a much longer series, or an excerpt from a much grander work that Wilson cut down – neither of which, I have to say, would surprise me entirely.

Still, what’s here works generally well. Wilson shows that he’s capable of getting into a character’s head well and really letting them breathe, and the best sequences of Bios allow the characters to simply react to the strange world around them and their incomprehensible urges. By the end, the book feels more like a collection of pieces than a quite coherent whole, and you can’t help but feel like something’s missing – some bigger pieces that would really make it work. Nonetheless, it’s solid, intriguing science-fiction, driven by some thoughtful ideas and rich scientific background. And if it doesn’t quite soar the way it should, it’s still an engaging enough read for its short length.


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