Monday, December 27, 2010

Stretching the definition of usness

kw: book reviews, science fiction, human variations, future fiction

Well, the book left me hanging. It is the first of a series that turns out to be a serial with novel-length episodes: The Tipping Point. Nonetheless, The Human Blend by Alan Dean Foster was a satisfying read. The cover art amused me. It shows a human eye with a fly's eye in place of the cornea. How that would be an improvement is beyond me, but it did convey a major element of the story.

In a future perhaps a century or two beyond today, humanity is composed of Naturals and Melds, the latter being those who have chosen to be surgically altered in some fashion, though Melding is portrayed as more than just a surgical intervention. Some people choose to have added capabilities, such as longer, faster fingers for musicians, plus an enhanced ear. Some take "cosmetic surgery" to new heights, adding a cockatoo-like crest of feathers, or even wings and a tail; one fellow nicknamed Gator has been croc-ified to the point that there is little visibly human left of him. Except he can stand upright and shake hands, and speak.

A Meld calling himself Whispr, for his whisper-thin physique and nearly silent step, is a murdering thief. With a friend nicknamed Jiminy for his cricket-like jumping legs, he has killed a courier to steal his clearly expensive Melded hand. In the process he discovers a shiny bit of thread that seems to be a storage device, so he steals that also. The rest of the book is taken up with his quest to find out just what this thread is, and perhaps what it holds. In his wake, an accumulating tally of dead—killed not by him but by others trying to retrieve the thread—attest to its value. He gains an unlikely ally, a doctor who treats him when he is shot full of police tracking devices called tractacs.

Under the surface of seeming amity between Meld and Natural, there is an undercurrent that resembles the latent racism which still infects America. I am sure it will figure more largely in later episodes (novels) in the series. In the meantime, Whispr and his doctor friend have discovered that the thread is made of an impossible material, MSMH or metastable metallic hydrogen, which supposedly cannot exist at pressures less than half a million atmospheres or so. That is about 10-20 times the pressure needed to produce diamond, a more familiar metastable high-pressure material. As this novel concludes, the two are on their way to confront the people who are most likely to have produced the thread. I guess that is one way to shorten a quest, if not your life.

I find it interesting that Melding is portrayed as something so many people do because they can. I suppose it stands in for face-lifts and liposuction as they are practiced today, even though much plastic surgery is undertaken for the sake of reconstruction or correction of inherent defects. Just so, Melds to adjust height or weight or to correct very unsightly appearance seem most common. Some Melds are functional, including very extensive modifications to allow certain persons to live on Mars or Titan, though I don't know where you can find source material to allow someone to breathe methane at a few dozen degrees below zero. It will be interesting over the next few decades to see just where a combination of plastic surgery and genomics can take us. Maybe this future trend is not as far-fetched as I think. In the meantime, Foster has hooked me good and solid. I wonder when book 2 of the series is due?

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