Proteus Manifest, Charles Sheffield

Guild American Books, 1989, 406 pages, C$15.00 hc, ISBN Unavailable

Ever since the “New Wave” pseudo-revolution of the sixties, a segment of Science-Fiction has been quite content to push the boundaries of literary achievement at the expense of the story. Sometimes is works (Neuromancer), but second-hand bookstores across the nation are packed with the failures of the experiment. Arguably, the final result is a stronger, more mature and better-written Science-Fiction. But ordinary readers can’t be blamed if they get the impression that a lot of the simple storytelling fun has gone out of today’s SF. Even worse; they tend to accept this as a matter of fact, and so the impression that Written SF Can’t Be Fun Any More If It Want To Be Serious subconsciously endures.

That’s why it’s such a breath of fresh air, from time to time, to re-discover solid works of SF that unashamedly bring back the simple joy of reading. It’s not fancy to be conventional, but most of the time it works.

Charles Sheffield will never be misidentified as one of the genre’s greatest stylists. A scientist by trade, Sheffield has turned to Science-Fiction late in life, producing works heavily inspired by the hard sciences, with only a perfunctory interest in characters.

His first novel was Sight of Proteus (1978), a short tale about a future Earth modified by the widespread use of nonsurgical techniques to modify the human body. These can be as innocuous as simple plastic modification or as fundamental as changing sex, etc… The hero of the tale is Behrooz Wulf (ie; Bey Wolf), a top investigator at the agency charged with protecting the Earth from illegal and dangerous modifications. It all begins as they suspect a famous scientist of forbidden experiments…

Sight of Proteus is, to be frank, a bit silly. Sheffield’s body-shaping technology is a mix between fancy machines and almost wishful biofeedback mechanisms. Given that the real-world has invented nanotechnology since Sheffield’s novel, let’s just say that his techno-babble isn’t as fresh or convincing as it was then even if the end results are more believable. The world-building is also slightly suspicious; one would expect more of scientific progress if, after all, they’re able to shape bodies literally at will.

But even despite these quibbles, Sight of Proteus is fun. The writing is marvelously limpid, up to a point where one wonders how come most novels aren’t as accessible, imaginative and entertaining as this one.

Things get less pleasant by the end, as our protagonists go an Nivenesque trip through the solar system and the story doesn’t conclude as much as is dropped almost in mid-flight.

Proteus Manifest is one of the Science-Fiction Book Club’s own omnibus editions, thus cleverly combining two book published at ten year’s interval under a same cover. Unfortunately, a universe based on the body-changing premise and a protagonist with the same name are about the only things the two novels have in common: There are few linkages with the events of the first novel, and Sheffield’s prose has evolved significantly in the decade dividing Sight of Proteus with Proteus Unbound (1989).

Even the plot is bigger, as Behrooz Wulf is asked to solve disquieting form-changing equipment failures in the Outer Solar System. At the same time, he’s plagued with maddening hallucinations and a lost love. Oh, and there’s also a rebel colony hidden inside the asteroid belt. Could all of these things possibly be linked?

The fun of the first volume carries through the second book, which is more satisfying than the first (though the conclusion is almost as abrupt). Good ideas, sharp writing, nice plotting and an effortless mastery of hard sciences; it’s good enough to compare with Niven and Clarke, as well as make one wonder why they don’t write that kind of SF any more.

Though Proteus Manifest is at time frustrating and not exactly completely successful, it is so wonderfully imaginative and clearly written that it’s well-worth picking up in used bookstores. Who said that the New Wave had killed old-fashioned Hard SF?

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