The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
November 08, 2019

(1948-2019) US medical doctor who worked full-time at UCSF until recently, and author whose output in the latter capacity, though he published only four novels and four collections, had considerable impact on the field, beginning with his first published story, “Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report” for Interzone in Spring 1984. This tale remains one of the most astonishingly savage political assaults ever published. The target is Ronald Reagan, whose living body is eviscerated without anaesthetic by a team of doctors, partly to punish him for the evils he has allowed to flourish in the world and partly to make amends for those evils through the biologically engineered growth and transformation of the ablated tissues into foodstuffs and other goods ultimately derived from the flesh, which are then sent to the impoverished of the Earth. “Tissue Ablation” and other remarkable tales including a striking exploration of Gender couched in the language of Medicine, “The Brains of Rats” (Summer 1986 Interzone), were assembled as The Brains of Rats (coll 1989), which also included original stories such as “The Wet Suit”. Though it may be that Blumlein’s almost scatological fearlessness – reminiscent of eighteenth-century political Satire in Britain – was made viable by the fact he did not depend on safe markets for his livelihood, the publication demonstrates all the same the very considerable thematic and stylistic range of late twentieth-century sf, and shows how very far from reassuring it could be. Blumlein’s later stories, assembled in What the Doctor Ordered (coll 2013), continue in the same externally cool, internally incandescent manner; the collection includes a novella, The Roberts (2010), in which an architect’s need for companionship involves the creation of a female Robot who herself needs a Robert or two to satisfy her own needs. Further collections basically resort the same material, though some stories in All I Ever Dreamed (coll 2018) had not been previously assembled, and the four reprinted tales in Thoreau’s Microscope (coll 2018) are engagingly grouped around the title essay on a trip to the High Sierras with Kim Stanley Robinson and others in order to name a mountain there after Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) (see Climate ChangeEcology).

Blumlein’s first novel, The Movement of Mountains (1987), is told in a more immediately accessible style than some of his short Fabulations, though at some moments the ornate chill of the narrator’s mind, and the form of the text – it is presented as the confessional memoir of a doctor implicated in the events he describes – are reminiscent of the darker tales of Gene Wolfe. The tale begins in a familiar, congested Near-Future California, moves to a colony planet mined by “mountainous”, biologically engineered, short-lived slaves (see Slavery) – whom the doctor helps liberate while at the same time analysing the plague which has killed his lover – and finally returns to Earth, where the doctor, having discovered that the plague has the effect of transforming humans into gestalt configurations, disseminates it in secret in order to bring down a repressive government. Blumlein’s second novel, X, Y (1993), though amplifying his earlier concern with exploring gender issues, is horror; his third, The Healer (2005), reiterates in a more contemplative mode some of the motifs and events of his first. On what seems to be a long-lost colony planet (its inhabitants repeat a myth of origin which suggests this), “normal” humans are distinguished from cranially deformed “Tesques” who also are “afflicted” with a dorsal protuberance; some Tesques become doctors, and are able to use their protuberance in highly interactive healing encounters. The protagonist – half slave, half mute saint – is shunted back and forth across the planet, learning the varieties of pain (his name is Payne) and ultimately transcending his circumstances, though he never wishes to stop healing. The two protagonists of Blumlein’s fourth novel, the moderately distant Near Future Longer (2019), are married researchers attempting to develop a sophisticated Rejuvenation Drug in reduced Gravity on a corporation-owned Space Station. The possible Discovery of an Alien presence on a nearby Asteroid sharpens potential ethical conflicts in an exploitative world.

At his best, Blumlein wrote tales in which, with an air of remote sang-froid, he made unrelenting assaults on public issues (and figures). Even the opaque serenity of The Healer can be understood as asking hard questions about what it means to heal in a fallen world. He wrote as though his aesthetic demanded justice; as though, in other words, beauty demanded truth. — John Clute