Blumlein, Michael

Tagged: Author

(1948-    ) US medical doctor who works full-time at UCSF, and author whose output in the latter capacity, though he has only published six books, has 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 like "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) – which includes a novella, The Roberts (2010) – continue in the same externally cool, internally incandescent manner.

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.

At his best, Blumlein writes tales in which, with an air of remote sang-froid, he makes 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 writes as though his aesthetic demands justice; as though, in other words, beauty demands truth. [JC]

see also: Interzone.

Michael John Blumlein

born San Francisco, California: 28 June 1948

died

works

collections and stories

  • The Brains of Rats (Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Scream/Press, 1989) [coll: special convention "pre-release" edition: pb/T M Caldwell]
  • The Roberts (San Francisco, California: Tachyon Publications, 2010) [novella: pb/Elizabeth Story]
  • What the Doctor Ordered (Lakewood, Colorado: Centipede Press, 2013) [coll: hb/illus/hb/Brian McCarty]

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