Sunday 3 May 2020

The Proteus trilogy, by Charles Sheffield

 Charles Sheffield (1935-2002) was not your average SF writer, in that he left Cambridge University with a Double First in Mathematics and Physics. Born and brought up in the UK, he emigrated to the USA and became Chief Scientist of Earth Satellite Corporation, plus a consultant to various organisations including NASA. He started writing SF in 1977, being most active in the 1980s and 1990s. He won Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards and became President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and of the American Astronautical Society.

I recently unearthed several of his books on my shelves, of which I recalled nothing, so decided to refresh my memory. Three of them form a trilogy which is generally called the Behrooz Wolf series after the principal character, although I think of them as the Proteus trilogy because that name features in the titles of all three volumes. In fact the history of the first volume, Sight of Proteus, is complicated in that it was originally published as three linked stories; Sight of Proteus, Legacy and The Grooves of Change. Furthermore, the book was first published in 1978 but was revised in 1989 (my copy is the revised version). Of the two sequels (Proteus Unbound and Proteus in the Underworld), the first was also serialised before appearing in book form in 1989; the last volume appeared in 1995.

The Proteus stories are set in a future world in which mankind has spread throughout the Solar System (in the form of an independent United Space Federation with a population of around 3 million) but no further. Earth is suffering under a population of 14 billion and is close to social breakdown. The most significant scientific and social innovation has been that of "form change", which takes a bit of explaining. Developed by the Biological Equipment Corporation (BEC), it is a process which combines biological feedback and real-time computer control to enable people to change themselves physically; a process which requires many hours spent in a nutrient tank. At first used for medical purposes – it enabled the regrowth of a lost arm, for instance – it is later extended to cosmetic developments, with people changing their forms in accordance with fashion. Particular "forms" (computer programmes) have to be exhaustively tested before approval, and that is monitored by the Office of Form Control of which Behrooz Wolf is the head.

In Sight of Proteus, a problem arrives on Wolf's desk: three bodies have been found in the ocean, and they do not look at all human – they appear to be aliens. It becomes clear that illegal experimentation with new forms is going on and Wolf requires all of his considerable intellect to unravel what is happening. His search takes him to the outer reaches of the Solar System and revolves around a shattered planet which used to have an orbit in between Mars and Jupiter, and was apparently the home of intelligent life.

In this first volume it is already evident that Sheffield's writing is unusual. His hero is notable for his intelligence, not any kind of macho abilities (in fact, I don't recall any violence at all – not even the threat of it). There are effectively no women characters (Wolf anyway being too absorbed in his work to be interested in relationships), and what action there is, is relatively slow. The science is convincing, hardly a surprise given the author's background. There is a flavour of the strange about the story: I was reminded of Charles Harness (The Paradox Men etc), while the climax was very reminiscent of Simak's City.

Proteus Unbound begins several years later, during which rather a lot has happened to Wolf: he found the love of his life, lost her to a rebel leader living somewhere in the "Kernal Ring" (a zone of the outer Solar System, containing a vast number of small black holes which were harnessed to generate power), and lost the will to live, ending up wired to a dream machine and dismissed by the Office of Form Control which he had formerly led. He is rescued from this fate by a representative of the Outer System who wants some problems with their BEC form change machines resolved. The trail leads to the notorious Black Ransome, the rebel leader, who appears to have access to some amazing technology far beyond the norm – from an astonishing source. This story does at least contain some women among the principal characters, including the most powerful individual in the Outer System.

There is another gap of several years before the events of the final volume: Proteus in the Underworld. Wolf has now retired and gone to live on a remote private island. The principal viewpoint character is not Wolf, however, but a distant relative – a young woman called Sondra Dearborn. She is a junior member of the Office of Form Control and has been given the job of resolving a different set of problems which appear to be occuring with form change equipment in the Outer System. She tries to involve a reluctant Wolf who isn't interested in her problem – or in a rival bid for his expertise by Trudy Melford, who owns BEC and is thereby the richest individual in the Solar System. She lives on (or rather, inside) Mars where there is conflict between those who want to terraform the planet for ordinary humans to live on, and those who prefer to use form control to change humanity to live on the surface as it is. The Underworld refers to a complex of vast Martian caverns and tunnels which have been occupied by humanity and provide an Earth-normal environment. The outcome again contains an unexpected twist.

The stories are notable for the emphasis on science and the ever-increasing importance of the female characters in this trilogy (although Sheffield would never have been able to earn his living as a writer of romance). There is also a strong mystery element; in effect, they are detective stories, with the characters having to collect the evidence and look for clues to aid in solving the problems. All in all, I found the Proteus series to be high quality SF in its concepts and ideas, as well as very enjoyable.


mudpuddle said...

this sounds great... i'll look for it if the libraries ever reopen...

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes, it's a shame if you can't get hold of books just when most of us have more time to read them!