Bios, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 1999, 208 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86857-X

Those poor, poor SF authors.

Earning a living -in any discipline- takes a lot of hard work. In the SF field, it takes more than that: dedication, creativity and a sense of how to please a crowd.

And the SF crowd is one of the worst there is. It’s not enough to give them an interesting concept wrapped in a good story. No, they ask for memorable characters, clear writing, snappy dialogue and good value for their money.

As a result, current SF authors have to uphold the professionalism developed in the fields ever since the pulp era. SF, like it or not, has become a small professional industry, and as with any pop culture product, readers can be expected to demand more for their entertainment dollars.

In most ways, Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios is a fine piece of Science-Fiction. The premise itself is intriguing: In a future where interstellar space travel is hideously expensive, humans have found one planet with a full biological ecology: Isis. The only problem; Isis’s natural ecosystem is “spectacularly toxic” to Earth life. “The entire planet is a permanent Level Four hot zone” promises the cover blurb.

Fun stuff, especially given Wilson’s initial premise. Bios‘s protagonist, Zoe Fisher, is sent on one of those all-too-expensive trips to Isis, where she is to undergo testing as a human built to be resistant to the hostile biosphere. Meanwhile, scientists stationed on and above Isis begin to see increasing levels of viral outbreaks inside “safe” areas. Something is happening, and it doesn’t promise anything good.

All throughout, Wilson builds his imagined future with an admirable economy. In a short time, he establishes the future dystopia that is Bios‘s universe, what with its new aristocracy, its pitiless corporations/political parties and overall aura of nastiness. This is the first time that one of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels explicitly takes place in an appreciably distant future, (he’s previously meddled a lot with alternate universes or futuristic element in contemporary settings) and he’s up to the difficult task of world-building with an assured professionalism.

His writing is also clear and to the point. Bios can be read compulsively, with its short length and dynamic storytelling. There is a memorable outbreak scene halfway through the book, and the final pages also pack a lot of interesting material. Few novel from Wilson are obscurely written up to the point of being uninteresting (Gypsies being the only notable exception) and Bios is even more engaging than its predecessors.

But, as his previous novel Darwinia suffered from a rather spectacular structural failure, Bios‘s considerable strengths must be tempered with significant warnings. The premise outlined above might lead readers to imagine a certain plot. Unfortunately, that is pretty much exactly what you get, especially if you’re familiar with the sense of doomed gloominess present in some of Wilson’s work.

To this predictability, let’s also be crassly commercial and point out that Bios‘s snappiness and readability is matched by its slim physical size: at barely more than 200 pages, Bios is almost half the length of today’s average SF novel. (But, at $32.95 Can, still fully the price of today’s SF novel) This is no breakneck densely-textured novel like Ian MacLeod or Greg Egan’s usual output: Once you start looking at the story with the assumption that this is a padded novella, yes, extrataneous parts seem to rise out of the novel. Unfortunately, there is as of now no market for SF novellas. Was Bios padded from a story too long to be novella and too short to be a satisfying novel? That’s a question to ask Robert Charles Wilson at the next SF convention.

[August 2000:  I did, and he graciously answered that Bios, from the start, was planned as a novel, “though it ended a bit short.” (He also rightly pointed out that it would have been a perfect length twenty, thirty years ago)]

In the meantime, Bios remains a worthwhile read, but not a worthwhile buy. Consider a paperback purchase if you’re a confirmed fan (keeping in mind that Wilson tries new things here, and succeeds), or else head for your local library.

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