tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > Brain Plague

Brain Plague by Joan Slonczewski
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Joan Slonczewski's Brain Plague
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - June 9, 2015

I've only read one previous bk by Slonczewski, A Door into Ocean (1986) ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1... ). Much to my surprise, I haven't reviewed it - wch means that I read it no later than the middle of 2007: 8 yrs ago! I liked it but I haven't managed to read a single other thing by her in what seems like a rather long ensuing period.

A Door into Ocean was remarkable for its thorough depiction of passive & successful resistance to aggressive imperialism - set in a Science Fiction context. I was impressed by what seemed like the authenticity of the author's engagement w/ such a political position.

Brain Plague (2000) is different. There's a fairly deep non-oversimplifying socio-political sensitivity to it but it's not as much the central content as it is woven into the overall plot fabric. The bk's dedicated "For Elizabeth Anne Hull and Frederik Pohl" Hull is described on Frederik Pohl's "The Way the Future Blogs" as:

"Blond and brainy, Elizabeth Anne Hull (known as Betty to most of her friends and called Betty Anne by her husband, Frederik Pohl), is Professor Emerita of William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, where she taught English and science fiction for over 30 years, earning the school’s Distinguished Faculty Award in 1997. The Alumni Association of Northwestern University honored Betty’s contributions to her profession with its Award of Merit in 1995.

Betty has authored essays and short stories, lectured on sf around the world, and led many writing workshops. She edited the anthologies Gateways: Original New Stories Inspired by Frederik Pohl and, with Fred, Tales from the Planet Earth." - http://www.thewaythefutureblogs.com/e...

Pohl himself, is one of my favorite SF writers & one that I've found to be consistently politically sensitive. Slonczewsk is a biology prof. Brain Plague is about the potentials of microbe communities interfacing w/ human hosts for their mutual benefit or detriment. The hosts become 'Gods' for the microbes insofar as they become the microbe's world upon wch they're dependent. Unintentionally, I followed this novel w/ an intelligent-bacterial-community-vis-à-vis-human-hosts one called Vitals (2002) by Greg Bear so I'm somewhat inundated w/ informed biological prediction at the moment.

Not surprisingly (given conventional novelistic development), the reader is slowly introduced to the "brain plague" & its implications, starting off in a Draconian way:

"The brain-plagued hijackers shipped their captives to the hidden Slave World, where they were building an armed fortress for their mysterious Enlightened Leader," - p 14

Eventually the Slave World is depicted like an opium den: "Within the room full of cots, the air was fetid, and flies settled everywhere. The slaves barely treated their wastes, either, she guessed. The humans, all thin and pale, seemd mostly asleep, although some sat up in chairs, their eyes glazed, rocking. One was being spoon-fed by a slave. "Rose? Is this what you call Endless Light?" (p 285)

In between, we learn that:

""Micros are intelligent," he said.

""Well, sure." Intellient buildings, intelligent medical machines—everything was "intelligent" these days.

""Intelligent people."" - p 30

Yes, but are they DIGITAL?! & do they listen to IDM?!

The artist protagonist becomes known to the micros that she hosts as the "God of Mercy" b/c she doesn't usually take advantage of her ability to kill rebellious micros:

"Chrys started to reply but thought better of it. She spread her hands. "If you kill the minion, that's the way to make the whole population read her stuff. Believe me."

""Your population," Selenite corrected. "Mine know better. Very well, you may keep her—but if she ever returns to my arachnoid, she's dead."" - p 140

I'm always interested in the way neologisms work their way into common usage in SF & elsewhere: Heinlein's "waldos" being one example. I don't know who coined "nanoplast" (nanotechnology + plastic) but I did find multiple industry references for such a product online. Here's an example:

"Nano-Plast coating is a natural, invisible and ultra thin, “breathing” and environmentally friendly coating optimally developed for the plastics industries, for polymer, synthetic surfaces, characterized by various plastic compositions and shades.

"The material excels in massive chemical durability to abrasion, with phenomenal lifespan extending properties for repelling water (hydrophobic) oil (oleophobic)." - http://www.nanoztec.com/Nano-Plast-NP...

Slonczewski refers to it: "A breeze from the sea swept her face as it keened across the towers of plast—nanoplast, the intelligent material that grew vast sentient buildings, as easily as it grew the nanotex bodysuits the artists wore. Plast formed the bubble cars that glided over the intelligent pavement". Clearly Slonczewski sees this as a 'material of the (near) future' &, yes, there's a Nanotex company already!: http://www.nano-tex.com/ . Does Slonczewski take money from them to promote their products?

I'm also interested in SF writers cross-referencing each other in other ways: ""Moraeg and Carnelian left for Solaris right after the show, as usual." Solaris, the number one leisure world" (p 141) Solaris, the name of a Stanislav Lem novel & 2 movies based on it: 1 by Tarkovsky, 1 by Soderbergh. Solaris is a thinking ocean planet that finds things in human observer minds that it then somehow materializes for them. It's hard to imagine that Slonczewski isn't making a bit of an inter-textual joke here.

Then there's "wetware". Who originated the term? I don't know. I 1st ran across it in (a) novel(s) by Rudy Rucker.

"Though its exact definition has shifted over time, the term Wetware and its fundamental reference to "the physical mind" has been around from the mid-1950s. Mostly used in relatively obscure articles and papers, it was not until the heyday of cyberpunk, however, that the term found broad adoption. Among these first uses of the term in popular culture were the 1987 novel "Vacuum Flowers" by Michael Swanwick as well as several books from the hand of Rudy Rucker, one of which he titled "Wetware"." - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wetware_...

"The chair of the board was the giant black sea urchin, reputedly a top market investor like Garnet. Its twenty-odd limbs stood out straight from its body, each ending in a different mechanism for grasping, screwing, or drawing. The sea urchin methodically reviewed the city's needs: so much residential volume, of a dozen categories, from snake-egg to transit system; so many power connections, service conduits, and seage lines; and something called "wetware."" - Brain Plague, p 276

Health insurance is even more of a hot button topic than it was in 2000 when this was copyrighted:

""What a nuisance," agreed Topaz. "Back to the clinic and wait two hours." Topaz and Pearl had Comprehensive Health Care Plan Three. They could afford Plan Three, thanks to the sale of Topaz's portraits. Lady Moraeg, on Plan Ten, looked twenty years for her two hundred. Chrys got by on Plan One, which provided neuroports but did not service them." - p 16

Ah, yes, health insurance in the US - even under the NOT-Affordable Health Care Act it ultimately boils down s/he-who-has-the-money-gets-the-care - wch means the biggest crooks get to live longest. Crime does pay after all, esp if you're connected to Haliburton or some other warlord manifestation masquerading as peace-keeping & reconstruction. Being on Plan Ten enables one to choose their age: "The plan rep molded to the holostage. "Now, according to our records," she observed, "you have yet to choose your age and appearance."" (p 59)

Slonczewski's main character is an artist. "She blinked to close her window for the night, then set the volcano above her bed to explode at seven in the morning." (p 23) Ha ha! I had an alarm clock that was designed to look like a block of dynamite.

The micros make Chrys rich by funneling their architectural genius thru her: "The roots of the Comb spread gradually wider through each level they penetrated. At the seventeenth level, the roots housed a shopping center frequented by middle-class simians and university students. That was the level Selenite chose to inject the virus containing all the instructions the micros had programmed." (pp 168-169) I suppose that's the "root-down" theory instead of the "trickle-down" one.

In Slonczewski's future, the Theremin has become a portable instrument for minstrels: "By the twelfth course, the golden servers started strolling with harp and theremin". (p 203)

One of the funnier touches is when a microbial artist encourages the human artist who hosts her to start making what's tantamount to microbial porn:

"The next one drew silence, and the next. A very long silence.

""Well?"

""They're . . . effective," he admitted, his eyes still focused.

""Should I show them in public?"

""I don't know. You might get a reputation."

""I knew it," she exclaimed. "I knew that Jonquil would have me peddling porn."

""The children look okay," he assured her. "They're just doing what micro children naturally do. But elders—or elders with children—that's profoundly disturbing."" - p 213

An 'elder' microbe having sex w/ a 'child' microbe is something a bit hard for a human being to imagine. It's too anthropomorphic - but anthropomorphizing microbes is a large part of what this bk is about:

"Incapable of work, the grayish ring jostled aimlessly among the red cells, begging for vitamins. Fireweed brushed its filaments to pass it a few.

" "Why?" asked Jonquil. "Why prolong its miserable existence?"

" "The One True God decreed, 'Love Me, love My people.'"

" "You call that brainless microbe a person?" Mutant children whose brains failed to reach Eleutherian standards were barred from the nightclubs, never eexposed to the pheremones that ripened for breeding, nor did they mature as elders. Worth no more than a virus.

" "There, but for a twist of DNA, go you or I," flashed Fireweed. "All people are one."" - p 222

Microbe 'charity'. I wonder if organized versions of it has CEOs who make enormous profits off donations while very little actually goes to helping anyone.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 29, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 9, 2015 – Shelved
June 9, 2015 – Shelved as: sf

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