by Kyt Dotson
I’ve spoken about ecological science fiction before when I wrote a review of Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, but where Red Mars is sociopolitical environmental fiction, BIOS by Robert Charles Wilson is more of a hard science environmental fiction with a twist. Certainly, there’s some politics involved, but it’s mostly subsumed by back story when the characters get thrust into a suspenseful horror-like process of discovery to determine what’s going on at a far-flung deadly world called Isis.
Holding the book in my hand felt a little weird, BIOS is only a little over 60,000 words, which makes it a bit shorter than the common contemporary science fiction novel; it also means that the pacing of the plot is extremely fast and it gets to its point somewhat quickly. This didn’t take away from enjoying the work, but it does mean that for any avid reader the book will come and go rather swiftly.
The story opens up with the protagonist, Zoe Fisher, being prepared for interstellar travel. She’s the product of years of careful eugenics and genetically altered to survive on the hostile surface of Isis. The planet itself has worked against the empire that wants to take it and seems to thwart their every attempt to understand its nature. In fact, as the story gets going, it becomes obvious that the ecology of Isis itself is learning to best their defenses and penetrate their safety domes.
The back-story about how Earth has been devastated by some unknown natural disaster and all of humanity has been overseen by shadowy controlling clans called Families whose puppetmastery extends to reproduction (and thus breeding, raising, and preparing people like Zoe) seems somewhat tacked on as it never comes up again in the entire story. Most of the book is focused on the strange ecology of Isis and how it’s slowly grinding the researchers on the planet down and denying them at every turn.
Even Zoe’s hugely genetically and technologically augmented body and capabilities don’t prove to be entirely effective against the intelligent-biome of Isis.
BIOS is a story about Isis; not as much about the characters. As a novel, this is a plot-driven book.
In a sort of way, it unfolds the story of Isis in an almost science fiction version of an Agatha Christie novel, the hard science humanity-vs-the-universe version of And Then There Were None. As the plot progresses, it does so by unpeeling the onion by killing everyone that you meet in the story line. Isis is extremely hostile to human life and a single exposure to any of the flora or fauna (or even viruses or virons) prove instantly and horribly lethal. To make matters worse, the flora and fauna evolve at a staggering rate with a singular mind to surmount the human’s defenses and annihilate them.
As Zoe marches through this mayhem, researchers get consumed by the environment left and right. Each time it forwards an understanding of what might be going on, but the actual underlying mystery remains until the end.
The result? We don’t really get to know any of the characters: BIOS is a shorter-than-average plot-driven book that kills off its characters one-by-one to tell the story.
Fortunately, this is actually forgivable because it feels like such a short read. In fact, BIOS could probably be told as a novelette and still retain a lot of its feel. However, it would then lack the grandiose and carefully worded descriptions of the ecology of Isis, the interaction of the world with itself, and all of the high technology that makes science fiction so much fun.
As a book, BIOS is a brilliant distraction, it’s a bit of a page-turner, and short enough that it finds itself a conclusion before the mystery-shrouded-in-an-enigma part of the story becomes annoying.