The politics and terrors of biotech, human engineering, and brain science are highlighted in this selection of short stories with Michael Blumlein’s signature mix of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and wicked humor. The title piece, “Thoreau’s Microscope,” is a stunning mix of hypothesis and history, in which the author inhabits Thoreau’s last days to explore the politics of impersonal science and personal liberation—a journey as illuminating as it is disturbing.
About the Author
Michael Blumlein is a medical doctor and a respected SF writer, whose novels and stories have introduced new levels of both horror and wonder into the fiction of scientific speculation. His work as a cutting-edge medical researcher and internist at San Francisco’s UCSF Medical Center informs his acclaimed stories and novels as they explore what it means to be truly—if only temporarily—human.
Read an Excerpt
Paul and Me for Terry Parkinson
I first met Paul in '71, the year I got out of college. I was bumming around the country, crashing in city parks and church basements, cadging food and companionship, avoiding the future. In keeping with the spirit of the times, I considered my carefree and unfettered existence both highly evolved and intrinsically righteous, when in truth I had no fucking idea. It didn't matter. My girlfriend was in New York City, living in a commune and doing guerilla theater. My ex-girlfriend was in Vancouver, BC, with her boyfriend, who'd fled the U.S. because of the draft. Those two women were ballast for me. In my imagination anyway, they were fixed points and gave me the security to do what I wanted in between.
I'd been in Bozeman a few days when I was busted for stealing a sandwich. After a night in jail, the judge threw me out of town. The first ride I got was headed to Seattle, but I wasn't ready for another city quite yet. I got out in Wenatchee, caught a ride to Carlton and two days later, a pack on my back and enough brown rice to last a week, was in the high country north of Lake Chelan.
There is nothing like the mountains to feel simultaneously large and small. Incomparably large, I should say, and insignificantly small. Distances are vast, yet life, because conditions are so exacting, is condensed. At the higher elevations the trees and wildflowers, the voles that skitter in and out of rocks, even the mosquitoes seem lilliputian. Which made Paul, at first glance, all the more striking.
He was kneeling by the edge of a stream, taking a drink of water. He had on those trademark jeans of his, the navy blue suspenders, the plaid shirt. From a distance he looked as big as a house, up close even bigger. Because of his size I expected him to be oafish, but he was nothing of the kind. He moved with remarkable grace, dipping his cupped hand delicately into the water then sipping from it with the poise of a lady sipping tea.
I was alone. It was July, and I had camped by a lake in a high meadow two valleys over. That morning I had gone exploring, following the drainage creek down as it fell through a boulder-strewn slope of fir and pine. An hour of walking brought me to the confluence of another, similar-sized creek, at which point the water picked up force. The trail leveled off for about a hundred yards, then dropped precipitously. This was the site of a magnificent waterfall, sixty, seventy feet high. Paul was at the far end of a deep pool carved by the water. His hair was dark and short, his beard trim, his lips as red as berries. Waves of reflected sunlight lit his face. He had the eyes of a dreamer.
The trail zigzagged down a granite cliff, coming out near the base of the waterfall. The noise of the falls was deafening and masked my approach. By the time he noticed me, I wasn't more than a stone's throw away. He stopped drinking, and a frown crossed his face. Quickly, this gave way to a stiff kind of courtesy, a seemliness and a handsome, though remote, civility. His public persona. I apologized for intruding and was about to continue on my way when he motioned me over.
Standing, he was thirty feet tall; kneeling, nearly half that height. His thighs when I first met him were as wide as tree trunks; his biceps, like mountains. As I drew near, he stood up and stretched, momentarily blotting out the sky. Then, as though conscious of having dwarfed me, he sought to put me at ease by sitting, or leaning rather, against a pine, which, though venerable, bent beneath him like rubber.
It was he who spoke first. His voice was deep and surprisingly gentle.
"Hello," I answered.
He looked at the sky, which was cloudless. Sunlight streamed down. "Doesn't get any better."
"Can't," I replied insipidly.
An awkward silence followed, then he asked if I came here often. I said it was my first time.
"You?" I asked.
"Every few months. It's a little hot for me this time of year. In the summer I tend to stay farther north."
I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. He was in long pants and a flannel shirt with the sleeves partway rolled up. I suggested that he might be more comfortable in other clothes.
"I like to stay covered," he replied, which nowadays would mean he wanted to keep out of the sun but then was more ambiguous. I searched for something else to keep the conversation alive.
"So what made you come?" I asked. "South, I mean."
He shrugged. "I don't know. I had an urge."
I nodded. Urges I knew about. My whole last year of college had been one urge after another. Sex, drugs, sit-ins. As a life, it was dizzying. And now, having hiked into the high country with the lofty purpose of getting away from it all, of finding a little perspective, here I was talking to a man as tall as a tower. I felt as dizzy as ever, and I was humbled by the realization that the very impulsiveness I was running from was what had gotten me here to begin with. I also felt a littlelightheaded, and thinking it might in part be a product of hunger, I took out a bag of peanuts. I offered him some, but he shook his head.
"I'm allergic to nuts. I blow up like a blimp."
This was news to me. Of everything I'd read or heard about him, nothing ever mentioned his being sick. I didn't know he could be.
"You don't want to be around," he said. "When you're used to pulling up trees like toothpicks and knocking off mountain tops like cream puffs, it's no fun being weak as a kitten. I'm a lousy invalid. Worse if I'm really sick. I had a fever once that started a fire and chills that fanned the flames so hot that half the camp burned down before the boys finally got it out. Then they had to truck in three days of snow to cool me off."
I could picture it. "One time I had a fever like that. It made me hallucinate. I was reading a book and the characters started appearing in my room. It was freaky."
"Mine was no hallucination," he said indignantly.
In those days, theories of the mind were undergoing a radical transformation. The word "psychotic" was being used in some circles interchangeably with the word "visionary," and people who hallucinated without drugs were held, at least theoretically, in high esteem. Obviously, Paul didn't see it that way, and I apologized if I'd offended him. At the same time it surprised me that he'd care.
"I have a reputation to uphold," he said.
It turned out he'd been getting bits and pieces of news from the lower forty-eight and knew, for example, about the Vietnam War, the protests, the race riots, women's liberation, and the like. Institutions were toppling everywhere. Traditions were in a state of upheaval. The whole thing had him worried, and I tried to reassure him.
"As far as I know, your reputation's intact."
"Don't worry about it."
"No? How about what's happening to your President Nixon? He was loved once. Now look at him."
"Loved" seemed a strong word, and even then it was hard to believe Paul considered himself in the same category as a man on his ignominious way out of the White House.
"People are fickle," he said. "Times change, you don't, and what happens? All of a sudden you're a villain."
"Fame's a bitch," I said without much sympathy.
He gave me a look, and for an instant I thought I had gone too far. What did I know of impetuosity? He could squash me like an ant. But then he laughed, and the earth, god bless her, trembled too.
"I'm not famous, little man."
"Of course you are."
"I'm a legend."
He chuckled softly and shook his head, as though I were hopelessly naive.
We ended up spending a week together. He took me north to his logging camp, which lay in a valley between two wooded ridges. He kept Babe in a pen at the foot of the valley beside the river that drained it, and every afternoon for an hour or two the ox would dutifully lie on his side and dam up the churning water, creating a lake for the loggers' recreation. They bathed and fished, and the few who knew how swam. In winter, when the waters froze, they played hockey and curling.
Each morning we had hotcakes for breakfast. It was a ritual the men adored. Half a dozen of them would strap bacon fat to their feet and skate around the skillet, careful to avoid the batter, which was coming out of full-size concrete mixers with stainless steel flumes ten feet above their heads. I heard stories of skaters who'd fallen and been cooked up with the batter, dark-skinned men who'd been mistaken for raisins, light-skinned ones for blanched almonds. Nothing like that happened while I was there. Paul was sensitive to the reports of cannibalism and kept careful track of the skaters. If one fell, he'd quickly pluck him up, and if there'd been a skillet burn, he'd rub it with that same bacon fat they had on their feet. And that man would be offered the day off, though none of them ever took it for fear of being labeled a sissy.
After we had our fill of hotcakes, Babe would be led in and allowed to eat what was left. One morning I saw him sweep up ten stacks with a single swipe of his tongue, each stack the size of a silo. It took him less than a minute to stuff it all in his mouth, swallow it down, and bellow for more. It was a bone-shattering sound. When it came to hotcakes, the Babe was not to be denied.
"They'll be the death of him," said Paul. "But I don't have the heart to say no."
"I'm not sure he'd listen."
"He's quite reasonable about everything else. Works straight through from dawn to dusk. As many days as I ask. Never complains. Which makes it hard to deny him his one weakness. I feel caught. Too lenient if I let him eat, too strict if I don't."
"It's nice you care," I said. "But look. It's his choice. You're not responsible for what he does. Don't let him victimize you."
Paul looked at me as if I were daft, and maybe I was. On the other hand, maybe I was just ahead of my time.
Cupping his hand over his mouth, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, as though divulging a deep, dark secret. "He can't victimize anyone. How can he? He's an ox."
The men in the camp worked in shifts around the clock, but as a rule Paul didn't get started until after breakfast. But once he did, he was unstoppable. I saw him log the entire side of a mountain in a single morning, strip the trees, dress them, and have them staged to be hauled out by lunch. He carried a double-bladed ax that allowed him to chop two trees at once, and when he got going, he could fell a whole stand in the time it took for the first tree to hit the ground. He was a furious worker, with a wild spirit and a love for people. In response, people loved Paul, and they came from all over to work for him.
But he had a quiet side too, and a need for solitude. One evening the two of us took a walk over the ridge above camp and down into the next valley. The meadows were lush with lupine and Indian paintbrush. There was aspen and spruce and a lazy stream that flowed without a sound. We built a fire and gazed at the sky, which that far north dimmed but never completely darkened, so that only the brightest stars were visible. We shared our dreams. Being twenty-one, mine was to taste life. Paul's was more specific.
"I want to fall in love," he said.
I laughed, but he was serious. And wistful. And uncertain that he ever could.
To my mind he had already had. "You have a vision," I told him. "To tame nature, but with a spirit that refuses to be tamed. You do love. You love freedom. You love life."
"I want to love a man."
Timidly, his eyes sought mine. I could see how desperately his heart wanted to open. I was twenty-one and eager for experience. To put it another way, I was a rebel even against myself.
It was the first time I ever had sex with a man. Obviously, some things were beyond my capability. Afterwards, we joked about it. He called me "little tiger" and revealed how much he had always liked little people. His parents were small, as was his older sister. At first they thought Paul had a glandular condition and took him to prominent doctors and specialists who prescribed various nostrums, all to no avail. They tried a Penobscot medicine man, who diagnosed possession by a powerful spirit and performed a daylong ceremony designed either to rid or to honor this spirit, they were never quite sure which. After that they gave up and just let the boy grow, which he did with a vengeance. By six months he required a cradle the size of a ship; by twelve he was plucking up fullgrown trees and tossing them in the air like matchsticks. His parents did their best to keep him out of trouble, but he had a spirit that couldn't be harnessed. They had to move frequently, and by the time Paul reached adolescence, they'd had enough. Unwilling and unable to control him any longer, his parents abandoned him in the forests of the Upper Peninsula, a deprivation to which he attributed his craving to love and be loved. There were four Great Lakes at that time. Paul's tears made the fifth.
Our meeting one another was one of those rare instances of two people's paths happening to cross at just the right time. We came together with equal passion, equal need, and an equal degree of commitment. It was intense, satisfying, and brief. Paul told me his deepest secrets and I told him mine. Three days later we parted company, promising to see each other again as soon as possible. Twenty years passed before we did.
Again it was summer. I had recently separated from my wife. This was not my college sweetheart, the one who'd gone to New York to fight the beast and topple the patriarchy, although we had been married briefly. This was the woman I had met after law school. She was coming out of a bad relationship at the time, a crash-and-burn affair with another woman, and was ready to try something new. I was new, and we did famously for eight years, therapy for five, and now we were trying separation. It was her idea, and I was having a lot of trouble adjusting. A friend suggested I get away, and the first place I thought of, or the first person, was Paul.
I took a plane to Wenatchee, picked up supplies and a car, then drove to Carlton. The town had grown. With the opening of the North Cascades Highway there were all sorts of new development. I saw no sign and heard no mention of Paul, and it crossed my mind that, despite his fondness for little people, this influx of commerce would not be to his liking. But I had a premonition that he'd be at that waterfall where we first met, a vague and vain idea that our lives were somehow running in parallel, that I would be on his mind as much as he was now on mine. It was a sixties kind of notion. Unfortunately, this was the nineties. He was not there, and he didn't come. I waited three days, then left.
I drove back to Wenatchee, turned in the car, and took a plane to Seattle. From there I headed north, on successively smaller planes, ultimately commandeering a four-seater Piper Cherokee that dropped me in Ross River, a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon. This was the vicinity of Paul's old camp, up in the Selwyn Range to the east, and here I heard mention of him, a whisper really, not much more. But a whisper was all I needed. The next day I was on my way.
It was August, and this was north. The days stretched on forever. I wandered in twilight, caught glimpses of moose and bear, fox on the run, geese in migration. I saw mountains decked in snow and a sky that shimmered with magnetism and light. But no Paul. His camp was empty and by the looks of it had been for years. The skillet that had cost old man Carnegie a year's output of steel was warped and covered with debris. The pen where Babe had slept was down, the field now overgrown with trees. I pitched my camp beside the creek he used to dam for the men, and cooked myself meals of desiccated sausage and freeze-dried eggs, all the while dreaming of hotcakes swimming in maple syrup. I took day hikes, resigning myself to the fact that this past, like my marriage, was over.
Then one day in a snowfield I saw footprints. Boot shaped, waist-deep, as long and wide as a wagon. That evening I found him.
He was sitting by a lake in a talus-sloped basin above tree line, absently tossing stones the size of tires into the water. The evening chill that had me in parka and mittens didn't seem to be affecting him. He was wearing what he always wore, though not in the way he always wore it. He was unkempt, his shirttails out, his boots untied. One of the legs of his pants was torn, and his beard, which I remembered as being neatly trimmed, was scraggly and matted.
The trail passed through scree, and the sound of shifting rock announced my arrival while I was still high above the lake. He looked up and frowned, as though unhappy at being disturbed. When he recognized who it was, the frown turned to a kind of puzzlement. He could have helped me down, but instead, he waited while I descended on my own.
It was a thrill to see him again. He said the same about me. But after the first flush of excitement our conversation lapsed. He seemed listless and preoccupied. I mentioned I'd been by the old camp.
"I saw you," he said.
"You saw me? When?"
"A couple of days ago."
My blood rose. "I've been looking for you nearly two weeks."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thoreau's Microscope"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Blumlein.
Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Paul and Me,
Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f,
Know How, Can Do,
"A Babe in the Woods",
Michael Blumlein interviewed by Terry Bisson,