Sunday, October 31, 2010

Brain Plague

Brain Plague by Joan Slonczewski
Tom Doherty Associates, 2000
Hardcover, 384 pages
Elysium Cycle Series, 4th book
ISBN-13: 9780312867188
highly recommended

An intelligent microbe race that can live symbiotically in other intelligent beings is colonizing the human race throughout the civilized universe. And each colony of microbes has its own personality, good or bad. In some people, carriers, they are brain enhancers, and in others a fatal brain plague, a living addiction. This is the story of one woman's psychological and moral struggle to adjust to having an ambitious colony of microbes living permanently in her own head. This novel is one of the most powerful and involving SF novels of the year.

My Thoughts:

Brain Plague by Joan Slonczewski is the forth book in the Elysium Cycle Series (the other three are A Door Into Ocean, Daughter of Elysium, and The Children Star) but it is also a stand-alone science fiction novel. In many ways Brain Plague encompasses a treatise on symbiotic relationships between individuals and societies, nanotechnology (with the microbes), artistic creativity, free will and personal responsibility, and what it means to be a god.

On the planet Valedon a struggling artist, Chrysoberyl (Chrys), agrees to be colonized by Eleutherian Micros, an race of intelligent, sentient microbes. The Micros live just beneath the skull, in the arachnoid, a web of tissue between the outer linings of the brain. They communicate with her neurally and live an accelerated life -something like an hour for us is a year to them.

Chrys accepts the Eleutherians Micros originally for better health care and a healthy bank account, as well as protection against the other, plague carrying Micros but soon they are helping her with her art, and serving as collaborators all while living a very accelerated life. Chrys' Micros can be helpful, annoying and rebellious.

While parts of the novel are very intriguing it does become bogged down as Chrys deals with her own rebellious Micros and the ever present and repeated threat of Plague-carrying slaves. Even though I liked the concept of worlds within worlds and enjoyed Brain Plague in many ways, I'm not sure it was entirely successful for me.

The biggest problem I had was the flaw I perceived in communication between humans and their Micros. Chrys and her Micros talked in real time to each other and other carriers but the Micros are supposed to be living a very accelerated life which, logically, makes that communication impossible to accept. Additionally, she would also threaten them with an eclipse (shutting her eyes for a short period of time) but that darkness would already be happening when she slept. I also became very tired of the word "plast." If I were giving numbers, this is a 3.5 - Highly recommended - as long as you overlook the inconsistencies involving the accelerated time for the Micros.


"Lord of Light."
"I see you, Green. why have you come.?"
“We pray you, give us our Promised World.”
“Every day you come to my eyes to demand a new world. Is it not enough that I saved you from death and sheltered you for seven generations?”
Green remembered that a generation of children grew old in a god’s day. Seven generations in exile; a mere seven days, for the Lord of Light. But in each generation, Green asked again. “The Blind God promised us a New World. Let my people go.” opening

Chrys knew real lava well enough, the heat rising like a blast of hell from Mount Dolomoth, where she was born. But Lava Butterflies was on display in Iridis, the planet Valedon’s fabulous capital. Never mind the brain plague, and the cancers crawling up from the Underworld; an artist made it in Iridis, or died trying. pg. 12

“There are ways to raise credit.”
Chrys eyed him coolly. “Like, I should join the slaves and rob a ship?” The “mind slaves,” their brains controlled by the plague, terrorized deep space.
Topaz frowned. “That’s no joke. The slaves took a friend of mine—nobody knows how they knew his flight plan.” The brain-plagued hijackers shipped their captives to the hidden Slave World, where they were building an armed fortress for their mysterious Enlightened Leader. The Valan Protector always pledged to find that Slave World and nuke it. But he hadn’t yet.
“Anybody could be a slave,” warned Pearl. “Anyone you know. At first you can’t tell, but they end up vampires.” “Vampires,” late-stage slaves with jaundiced eyes and broken veins, stalked the Underworld for a neck to bite before they died. pg. 14-15

Pearl shook her head. “Brain enhancers come from the mind slaves.”
“No,” said Chrys. “Brain enhancers are cultured cells. They boost brainpower—like mental mitochondria.”
Zircon repeated, “I don’t know.” His eyes widened. “What if they turned out smarter than me?”pg. 18

A mass of something was oozing heavily up along her foot. Cancerplast; a piece of a building root that had gone wrong, like a cancer that metastasized, its cells creeping blindly in search of a power supply. Usually plast metastasized only down in the Underworld, where inspectors never came. But here was a blob of cancer right up in her neighborhood, within two blocks of her own apartment. And nearby lurked a vampire. pg. 19-20

If brain enhancers could do all that, what might they do for her studio? Chrys had waited long enough for saints and angels. She blinked to close her window for the night, then set the volcano above her bed to explode at seven in the 23

“Green and Unseen.” The blue angel flashed its message from the Lord of Light. “The gods have found your New World.”
“Our New World!” flashed Green. “As the Blind God promised.” After seven lonely generations.
“A world of our own,” added Unseen, “behind the brilliant eyes of a new deity.”
“A new Eleutheria.”
pg. 24

“So these brain enhancers—they’re a different species?” Like different species of bacteria: Some made yogurt, others made people sick.
“They require human hosts; they can no longer live anywhere else. They are extremely intelligent, and extremely dangerous.”
“The brain plague, you mean.”
“Brain plague or brain enhancers. They’re genetically the same.” pg. 28

Micros are intelligent,” he said.
“Well, sure.” Intelligent buildings, intelligent medical machines—everything was “intelligent” these days.
“Intelligent people.”pg. 30

The doctor added, “You can meet the micros yourself and ask them your questions.”
“‘Meet them?’ Where?”
“Micros can’t live outside a human host,” the doctor said. “They live just beneath the skull, in the arachnoid, a web of tissue between the outer linings of the brain.” pg. 31-32


Jeanne said...

You're right about the time flow. There's some attention to this in the previous novel, The Children Star; it's part of how difficult it is for the humans to recognize intelligence on the planet the micros come from.

Lori L said...

Thanks for the tip, Jeanne. I'm not entirely sure if I'll pick up the previous novel or not... Brain Plague seemed to work as a stand alone novel too, except, perhaps, for the time flow explanation.