I can’t think of many sci fi books in which microbiology is the core element of the story—actually I can only think of one, the excellent Andromeda Strain of Michael Crichton, which deals with viral infection from outer space. As to Greg Bear, author of Vitals (2002), he had the brilliant idea of putting bacteria on center stage with, as we shall see, pretty good intuitions.
Bear is an accomplished American science fiction writer. His short story Blood Music won both a Nebula and a Hugo Award, and his Darwin’s Radio won a Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2000. He’s considered a ‘hard SF’ writer, since science has a prominent place in his fictions (which is, by far, not a prerequisite in science fiction).
Vitals tells the story of twin brothers, Hal and Rob Cousins, who happened to be microbiologists (the story is mainly told through the point of view of Hal, but we learn about Rob via another POV character). The Cousins brothers are in their late twenties and already very successful scientists. Hal had a tenure track position in Stanford, however, at the beginning of the book we learn that he has been fired due to a redistribution of resources at Stanford. So now he’s going rogue, that is, he’s looking for rich patrons to subsidize his research and he's renting lab space for his own use—a situation that I thought unrealistic, but I read something similar recently in Science, so... Good news for Hal, his trade is the prolongation of human life, a topic that has the ear of many rich old men. In the first pages of the book we thus meet Hal on a mission to seek the secret of eternal life in the deep ocean floor…
The main idea behind Vitals is extremely interesting: the process of human aging is not inevitable, but is actually the result of the mitochondrial activity in our cells. Mitochondria never fully gave up their membership to bacterial life, and they communicate with the myriads of bacteria in and on our body to control some of our metabolic functions. Aging and death, in that respect, is just a way bacteria (often referred to as “the little mothers” in the book) renew the human livestock and keep the best conditions for bacterial life. Quite far-fetched, of course, but this vision of an almighty microbiome guiding our lives is not so distant from the scientific view that has developed during the past decade! Today, it seems that our inner bacteria are responsible for many aspects of our health, from our weight to our immunity. Even more striking, a brand-new report in Nature hints at how mitochondria can have a role in the age of the worm C. elegans… Good pick, Mr. Bear!
Science is central in the book, and rather well represented, but Vitals wants first to be a technological thriller (à la Crichton). For this reason Hal Cousins soon has to deal with matters that are hardly scientific but rather related to his mere survival. At the beginning of the book, in a nicely rendered claustrophobic scene, Hal is in a small research submarine, several thousands of feet in the deep blue sea, when his pilot loses his marbles and attacks him. What should have been an exciting journey through hydrothermal vents on the seafloor turns into a nightmare...
Hydrothermal vents actually are a source of wonder for biologists and microbiologists. The unmistakable voice of David Attenborough explains why:
A lot of interesting microbiological research is done, for instance by Nicole Dubilier at the Max Planck Institute in Bremen, who studies symbiotic bacteria in vent invertebrates.
Back to the book, it seems that the world conspires to kill Dr. Cousins, but why? What we’ll learn is quite a shocking revelation. It happens that bacteria, not only responsible for controlling our health, can also influence our minds… Hal and his brother Rob will thus have to contend with a secret and powerful organization, a former Soviet Union group of scientists who pioneered mind-control with the help of carefully selected bacteria. Hal and Rob are standing in the way with their research, and the wrath of the evil-doers will come upon them. It won’t be easy for our microbiologist heroes!
Greg Bear does a rather solid job at unfolding the plot, however, the techno-thriller genre is a very arduous one, so here and there the mechanics of the story does not work as smoothly as one may wish. Sometimes the action seems a bit forced, and the characters’ behaviors a bit unlikely. But nothing really crippling, in my opinion. More important, I enjoyed the sci fi ideas developed by Bear. He knows what he’s talking about, he has read his share of Lynn Margulis’ theory of endosymbiotic evolution and the book of Shapiro and Dworkin, Bacteria as Multicellular Organisms (both acknowledged a the end of the book). As I said there’s only a few microbiology fiction out there, so it’s worth giving this one a try!
Bear G. (2003) Vitals. Ballantine Books. 416 pages. [Mass Market Paperback]