The other night, I watched Lucy, the 2014 film written and directed by Luc Besson. It starred Scarlett Johansson as the titular character: an American student coerced into becoming a drug mule, only to become something much stranger when her body starts absorbing the experimental substance carried in her stomach. In this way, the film bears a superficial similarity to the 2011 movie, Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper as a deadbeat writer whose life gets turned around when he ingests a tablet that unleashes his full inner potential. Both movies make use of the myth that human being only use ten percent of their brains, in order to speculate what might happen if that other ninety percent were unlocked. In Limitless, Cooper’s character becomes a kind of super-yuppie, using his abilities to manipulate the world of high finance. In Lucy, Johansson takes a step further, renouncing her humanity in order to become an organic supercomputer. And it is this final sequence that puts me in mind of Greg Bear’s 1985 novel, Blood Music.
In Blood Music, maverick researcher, Virgil Ulam, develops a strain of ‘biochips’ capable of communicating and storing data via DNA. As these chips begin to exhibit signs of intelligent behaviour, he finds his research shut down, and finds himself forced to take drastic action. He injects the chips into his own body and, over the next few days, documents the bizarre transformations they inflict upon him as they learn and grow. Unfortunately for Ulam and the rest of humanity, the chips don’t stay confined to his body, and it isn’t long before they’re assimilating and reshaping all the organic matter in the world into a slimy biological singularity.
In science fiction, the Singularity is the point in time beyond which it is impossible for us to predict or comprehend events. This is most often assumed to occur shortly after the rise of artificial intelligence, when machines capable of designing even more powerful machines raise themselves beyond the understanding of their human inventors in a runaway explosion of intellect. While Lucy and Blood Music deal with the beginnings of such an event, they both speculate a biological origin for the supplanting intelligence, rather than a computational one. Why look to silicon, they seem to be saying, when the natural world already produces tools of great sophistication and potential.
On the 26th September, I took part in a panel on artificial intelligence at BristolCon. During the discussion, we touched upon the notion of ‘organic processors’, and the concept of upgrading the neural architecture of primates and other animals—a notion of particular horror and fascination to me in light of my Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy, which features an artificially uplifted monkey as one of the main characters. In particular, we focused on the idea of linking several natural brains in parallel, in order to create a large processor. What kind of computational power might you generate, I asked the audience, if you could link a dozen blue whales’ brains via Wi-Fi? Would it be enough to host a supremely intelligent super-organism?
In Bear’s novel, it is his biochips that provide the distributed intelligence. They start off with the cognitive abilities of flatworms, but also with the ability to learn, and share the fruits of their learning via the physical exchange of RNA and DNA. And once injected into Virgil Ulam, they quickly rise to an understanding not only of their host, but also of the greater world beyond.
Lucy ends when the titular character learns to transcend her physical existence—leaving us wondering what she’ll do next, and how it might affect humanity. In Blood Music, Bear takes us forward, to show us what happens when Ulam and his creations shuffle off the confines of his individual existence, becoming infinitely more pliable. And the remainder of the book follows the progress of the new entity—comprised of intelligent cells and subsumed humans—as it spreads across North America and the world, learning, changing and adapting as it goes.
The destruction of humanity via infection isn’t a new idea. We’ve suffered plagues throughout our history. However, with Blood Music, Bear postulates something we’ve never seen before—the creation of an intelligent bioweapon with its own interests and agenda.
In 2013, Gareth L. Powell’s alternate history thriller, Ack-Ack Macaque (published by Solaris Books) co-won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Two sequels have followed. You can find out more at www.garethlpowell.com, or by following Gareth on Twitter @garethlpowell.
Blood Music by Greg Bear is available in paperback from Gollancz as part of the SF Masterworks series and as an eBook from SF Gateway.