Read for the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.
Basic plot: mad scientist full of his own god-complex is told to shut down his experiment, but he persists anyway, and then THINGS GO HORRIBLY WRONG. Basically, it’s Frankenstein.
Except that this is Frankenstein with a cyborg nanovirus taking things into the realm of the truly weird and horrific through a gray goo apocalypse.
Except that it’s all that’s good about Frankenstein, not just what you’ve seen in monster movies in black and white at 3 a.m. It explores deep philosophical and existential questions. Like: what qualifies as “intelligence”? What qualifies as “consciousness?” How does consciousness work? How does memory work? What does it mean to be human? If conscious observation really affects reality, as a prominent theory of quantum physics suggests, what would having a concentration of literally quintillions of consciousnesses in one place do? And ultimately, we are left to decide if the end is the apocalypse for the human race, or a transhuman evolution to the next stage of existence.
There’s not much I can tell you about the plot without spoilers, so I won’t. Instead, I will crow vaguely about how Bear turns the tables, and how the protagonist is not at all who you think it is. And that’s where I’m going to leave it.
Enjoyment of this book seems to depend on how familiar you are with science fiction. If you’re new to the genre, this, perhaps, is not the book for you. But to an “old stardust” like me, it’s not at all surprising that this book was nominated for, or won, just about every major award in science fiction in 1986. And it desperately deserved them.