Gary K. Wolfe Reviews All I Ever Dreamed and Thoreau’s Microscope by Michael Blumlein

All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (Valancourt 978-1-943910-99-1, $22.99, 506pp, tp) May 2018

Thoreau’s Microscope, Michael Blumlein (PM Press 978-1-62963-516-3, $14.00, 118pp, tp) June 2018.

Michael Blumlein has long brought a sharply original perspective to his science fiction, and one possible reason he’s not gained wider recognition is that his most better-known earlier works, such as the now-classic story “The Brains of Rats” and novels such as X,Y were generally published and received as horror (although “The Brains of Rats”, originally published in Interzone, eventu­ally made its way into high-profile SF anthologies such as Le Guin & Attebery’s Norton Book of Science Fiction and Jeff & Ann VanderMeer’s Big Book of Science Fiction). It may be that Blumlein’s darkly clinical approach, together with his insights as a practicing physician and his fascination with issues of genetics and gender, simply led him to drill more deeply than usual into the implications of medical or biological SF, and it may be that fiction which drills that deeply often ends up looking like horror – something that Mary Shelley herself discovered, while she was in the process of inventing, if not SF itself, at least medical SF. And Frankenstein isn’t too far in the background of many of Blumlein’s tales, which tend to deal with unanticipated consequences, and the consequences of trying to fix those consequences, until one ends up at best in a state of accommodation and grim survival. The longest and best story in his new collection All I Ever Dreamed even echoes The Bride of Frankenstein, if that movie were set in a hall of mirrors. “The Roberts” traces the career of a brilliantly innovative but chronically lonely architect whose most spectacular invention, a kind of living, self-repairing membrane for buildings, collapses in a welter of lawsuits after the skin turns out to be subject to the same infec­tions and allergies as any organic being. He later meets a “parthenogeneticist” who offers to help solve his problems of isolation and loneliness by creating a woman, Grace, according to Robert’s specific prescription. She turns out to be as de­voted, gorgeous, and competent as those dream robots of pulp SF – but is frustrated by Robert’s obsessive devotion to his work. The solution to that, it seems, is to create another Robert to meet Grace’s needs. As the title implies, we eventu­ally end up with more Roberts than Grace really needs or wants, and the fundamental issue of the original Robert’s self-constructed isolation and self-absorption is never really solved at all. It’s a powerful and bizarre tale, despite its almost fairytale-like use of genetics, a science which Blumlein usually treats with considerable rigor.

All I Ever Dreamed collects all of Blumlein’s short fiction since The Brains of Rats in 1990 (most of which also appeared in the 2013 Centi­pede Press collection What the Doctor Ordered in 2013), and many originally appeared in familiar venues such as Asimov’s or F&SF, where Blum­lein has been a reliable if not especially prolific contributor for decades. One reason he isn’t more prolific – apart from his medical career – might be that he seems to approach each story with enough architecture and detailing for a full novel, often not even introducing speculative elements until the tale is fully grounded in character and setting – and even then those elements are often more insinuated than foregrounded. For example, the lead story, “California Burning”, set against the background of the recurring California wildfires, begins with a rather odd domestic problem: the narrator learns that the bones of his recently de­ceased father were somehow unaffected by even an extended cremation process. He learns there have been a few other such unexplained cases, and begins questioning his mother and his father’s friends – all inconclusively, until hints emerge that the father may not have been quite what he seemed. Even the relatively brief “Bird Walks in New England” packs an entire fading marriage, complete with raising a family, into a tale whose only concession to the fantastic is a strange bird which the narrator encounters on a birding walk.

It’s not the only marriage in these stories, though. Blumlein seems especially fascinated by the shifting terms of relationships and even of gender, topics which he approaches with a clini­cian’s eye and an often restrained deployment of SF ideas. In “Twenty-Two and You” (the title is a play on the name of a popular genetic testing com­pany), a husband and wife who desperately want children discover that a faulty gene would likely trigger a cancer should she become pregnant – until a genetic sequencing company promises to fix the gene, with only minor side effects. One of those side effects, though, changes the story utterly, giving it a dark sort of O. Henry ending. “Success”, a quite substantial novella, traces the career paths of a wife seeking university tenure through traditional means and a husband whose career flamed out early because of his growing obsession with developing a Unifying Theory of Life, complete with constructing a huge mechani­cal model of what he calls the epigene; the story’s title quickly develops an ironic double meaning. The narrator of “Snow in Dirt” literally digs up the girl of his dreams in his garden, and seems to be living out a 1960s Playboy fantasy as she becomes a famous model and only grows more beautiful, but things get complicated when they become involved with an ambitious scientist re­searching life extension and – inevitably – by the woman’s increasing assertion of her own agency. Blumlein’s male characters have a spectacular tal­ent for shooting themselves in the foot, often by badly misreading the female characters.

Not all of Blumlein’s fiction is quite so tradi­tionally novelistic in technique, though. “Paul and Me” enter the tall tale realm with the narrator’s claims of repeated encounters with an aging and increasingly disillusioned Paul Bunyan, while “Strategy for Conflict Avoidance” is in the form of a letter to George W. Bush, trying to teach him diplomatic lessons from nature. “Know How, Can Do” is one of the two most stylistically adven­turous pieces, narrated by a roundworm which has been grafted to a human brain and gradually gains language and self-awareness. The other is “Your Quantified Self”, apparently original to the collection, which is a second-person lecture on the statistics that pretend to describe us while really describing nothing at all but confinement. Tales like these demonstrate a more playful side of Blumlein’s characteristically dark vision, but they also simply bring to the surface the deep irony that pervades his interrogation of how we try to build and sustain relationships, often from questionable motives we haven’t quite thought out, and of the complications that result.

Overriding the cynicism, though, is a deep com­passion, and it’s a compassion in evidence in his nonfiction as well. His contribution to the PM Press series of “Outspoken Authors”, Thoreau’s Mi­croscope, includes four of the stories in All I Ever Dreamed (“Paul and Me”, “Your Quantified Self”, “Fidelity”, and “Know How, Can Do”) together with the series’ usual freewheeling interview with Terry Bisson and – perhaps most important – the remarkable title essay, inspired in part by a trip to the High Sierras with Kim Stanley Robinson, Gary Snyder, and a few others, with the goal of naming a mountain after Thoreau. Blumlein considers the role of the observer in wide-ranging terms, from Leeuwenoek’s original microscope, to Thoreau’s role as the archetypal poet-scientist, to the modern imaging techniques that have traced the progress of Blumlein’s own lung cancer. Blumlein’s voice takes on a degree of urgency here, but it only reminds us of the deeply humane urgency that his fiction has always exhibited.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the August 2018 issue of Locus.

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