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Book cover art by Jim Burns.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Bios is a good book that should have been a really good book. Its premise is a keeper, but its execution is like that of an extended Analog novella, with loads of scientific jargon and characters that cry out for your empathy but never quite earn it. Yet it merits a rainy day recommendation for hard SF fans for its efficient handling of an intriguing, if not groundbreaking, story.

The story is set in the distant future when humanity has divided into various bureaucratic clans called the Trusts, and a substantial number of people have left an environmentally dysfunctional Earth for colonies on Mars and in the Kuiper Belt. A world named Isis, orbiting a distant star, has been discovered teeming with life. And yet, despite its immense scientific value, absolutely all of Isis is lethal to humans. It isn't simply that the atmosphere isn't breathable or anything like that. All life on the planet is like a level five virus to the human body. Ebola to the nth degree.

Zoe Fisher is a young woman who has been bioengineered to explore Isis. And yet she has a secret not even she knows. Prior to her voyage to Isis, a surgeon, in an act of rebellion against the Trusts, has removed a device from Zoe's body called a thymostat, designed to regulate her personality and keep her ability to think and judge independently in check. And so as Zoe's tenure on Isis begins, she begins experiencing new emotions and thoughts unfamiliar, and yet strangely appealing to her. Engineered as a machine, Zoe has begun to become human.

Of course, this development is coming at a horribly inconvenient time, as it appears the runaway evolution of Isian organisms is now allowing it to attack the very bases set up by the human crews studying the planet. Seals on airlocks begin to break down, machinery malfunctions, people die in ghastly ways, and now it appears that contagion has even spread to the orbital station by one group of evacuees. And all of this while Zoe is alone on the surface, making not altogether pleasant first contact with the closest thing Isis has to sentient beings.

This sounds like a can't-miss formula for a white-knuckle thriller, to be sure, but truth to tell, this little book (only 214 paperback pages) doesn't really kick into gear until its second half. For the first half, we're treated to a disappointing company of stock characters. Kenyon Degrandpre, the cold and heartless manager of the orbital station, lacks only a black top hat and a moustache to twirl. Other characters, including the team of scientists whom Zoe meets and works with on Isis' surface, aren't much more than sketched into being. Only Tam Hayes, towards whom Zoe feels her first stirrings of sexual desire (thanks to the disconnected thymostat), comes across half as well developed as Zoe. Everyone else, sad to say, are a bunch of redshirts, dropping like flies as the contagion attacks.

Thankfully, when that starts happening, it gives the story a jolt of tension to compensate for what it lacks elsewhere. As a result, the book has good entertainment value. But Wilson has shown he's capable of greater depth and substance while keeping the suspense and excitement properly ramped up. He's got it in him, all right. Let's hope he lets it out to play in future.