by Robert Charles Wilson
Published by Tor
208 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
From the mid-1980s to the mid-90s Robert Charles Wilson penned a string of critically acclaimed novels. Just as the last two of these, The Harvest and Mysterium, seemed well placed to propel him to a certain level of commercial success, Bantam, his publisher, considerably cut back the breadth of its science fiction program and let all of Wilson's novels go out of print. No new Robert Charles Wilson books were seen for four years. Then Tor Books released Wilson's 1998 novel, Darwinia, to widely disparate reviews but considerable commercial success. Bios, again from Tor, is the first novel in which Wilson tackles the traditional SF trope of planetary exploration.
The first half of Darwinia was filled with wondrous ideas ingeniously integrated into an exciting story. Halfway through the novel, Wilson pulled the rug out from under his own novel by revealing that the whole story, its characters, and the concept of an alien continent (Darwinia) suddenly appearing in Europe's place were all nothing more than data corruption occurring within a far-future information storage system that was misremembering 20th-century Earth. Suddenly, there was nothing at stake and still half a novel to go. Similarly, Bios starts off magnificently but fails to deliver on the promise of its early pages.
Bios opens with an enticing eight page prologue. It's an intimate scene of a 70-year-old woman's act of political sabotage (which affects later events, but not as significantly as it should have). The prologue succeeds in many ways. It paints a convincing and moving portrait of a woman who, despite her feelings of powerlessness, yearns to break her society's cycle of conformity. By providing just the right balance of revelation and allusion, it infers a fascinating future society and skillfully sets up an intriguing situation that propels the reader onwards, to discover how it will unfold. The elegant prose captures a moment of tense immediacy. Sadly, after this it's all downhill.
Bios is the story of Zoe Fisher, a genetically engineered young woman who is sent to Isis, a planet whose lush, predatory ecosystem is deadly to Terran organisms, and of the political machinations (unknown to Zoe) behind her assignment. Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of Isis and Zoe's relationships to the various secondary characters. It ends with some kind of nonsensical cosmic transcendence (à la Arthur C. Clarke) pulled out of a hat: neither foreshadowed nor thematically integrated in any way. And then there's a second ending, a consequence of the first ending, that involves none of the novel's characters (except the planet Isis) and feels absolutely irrelevant to the story.
It's hard to figure out if Bios is too long or too short. Certainly, the description above seems to suggest, at most, a novella. But Bios is filled with barely sketched out tangents that, if pursued, could have added depth and texture to the story. As things stand the bulk of the text reads like a rough story draft of what could have been a novel. Even the prose is uncharacteristically sloppy, filled with verbless short paragraphs and dry descriptions devoid of any feeling, despite the bizarre extraterrestrial setting (compare with Kim Stanley Robinson's The Mars Trilogy, where the descriptions of the relatively less exotic Mars are all imbued with a given character's emotional perceptions). It's as if Wilson, a writer who has previously shown he knows better, thought simply creating a strange setting was enough to evoke its full power.
By fleshing out the sketchy paragraphs and exploring the depths of his characters, settings and ideas, Wilson could have created a captivating science fiction novel. On the other hand, by cutting out all the extraneous details, he also could have written a tight tale that engagingly combined planetary adventure, character study and social speculation. Instead, Bios is a book that meanders in carelessly written tangential trivia that obscures the author's otherwise fertile imagination. | March 2000
Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop.