- Hardcover: 208 pages
- Publisher: Tor Books (November 13, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 031286857X
- ISBN-13: 978-0312868574
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 40 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,823,651 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Bios Hardcover – November 13, 1999
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In the 22nd century, humanity discovers life on an extrasolar planet, Isis: life that is lush, beautiful--and deadly. The least molecule of Isian biology kills humans painfully and horribly. Zoe Fisher has been born and bred--cloned and genetically engineered--to explore Isis. But Isis has secrets undiscovered by humanity, and Zoe herself contains secrets known only to the political powers that created her. And an act of biomedical sabotage has changed Zoe in unknown ways.
Robert Charles Wilson is the author of Science Fiction Chronicle's Best SF Novel of 1998, bestselling Darwinia, also the Aurora Award winner and Nebula and Hugo Award finalist. With Bios, Wilson has created a hard-SF novel rich in great ideas, strong writing, and the classic sense of wonder, a work that stays true to the implications of its frightful biology. --Cynthia Ward
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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.
The action takes place on and around the planet Isis, where the Trusts' have established an outpost at great expense in the hope of scoring big with new and novel pharmaceutical discoveries. Life on Isis is not just inimical to Humans, it is actively hostile, and physical contact with the biome at any level is an immediate and grisly death sentence. Most of the workers in the heavily armoured research labs are from the outer colonies because they are used to cramped, enclosed environments, but there are sufficient 'terrestrials' to rub up against that an undercurrent of culture clash runs through the book. In particular, the Manager of the Isis Orbital Station, Kenyon Degrandpre, is of the Trusts' and therefore raised as a stickler for rules and regime irrespective of their utility or effectiveness.
Our somewhat heroine, Zoe Fisher, is an innocent thrust into this mix as a game changer with regards interacting with the Isis bios. Essentially decanted with a tailor made immune system that is enhanced with biological scrubbers at the nanotech level, Zoe does not require the equivalent of a deep sea diving suit to walk outside and the story is as much her awakening to her own sense of self as it is her interactions with the Isis bios.
"Bios" literally unravels over a very short period of time, a matter of days as the clock starts to count down from about halfway through the book, but I found the tone more wistful and melancholy than seat of your pants tense or suspenseful. There is a mystery to solve, and if you've read a lot of sci-fi you'll have probably figured out the shape of this well before Wilson kicks in a strong hint way before the end, but knowing the shape does not detract from the actuality which was nice.
As with other Wilson novels I've read, "Bios" is about the characters more than the science or the circumstances. So we have FTL but all we know is that's via the "Higgs" method; it is amazingly expensive; and it only supports low-band communication. Likewise the armoured outposts - where Peter F. Hamilton or Neal Asher, for example, might give us gritty technological detail, Wilson gives the barest of facts to make the point and keeps the focus on what that means to the characters. He is not quite a full Ballardian, but Wilson does express similar concerns about the impact of technology, environmental and social issues.
I noted that "Bios" was just about perfect, and one of the few things that tickled my "Hmmm" bone were the economics of the FTL outpost in the first place. Right up front we're told each FTL launch, carrying barely any cargo, is as costly as "creating a new Kuiper habitat or a Martian airfarm". You need serious payback for a commercial project that is consuming a "measurable fraction of the solar system's economic output" and given that the physical travel is one-way and that the bandwidth for answers is very limited, that aspect did not gel for me.
Still, the Hmmm moments were minor in the scheme of things, and if you like the style of Jack McDevitt or Greg Egan then you'll probably enjoy "Bios".