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Sight of Proteus by Charles Sheffield

(Ah, the lower-case "a" Ace colophon. I much prefer it to the capital A that showed up sometime after Baen started running Ace. What was it about him and publishers with triangular colophons)

Charles Sheffield (1935 – 2002), born in the UK but resident in the US for much of his life, was a moderately prolific science fiction writer, specializing what's often called hard SF. You would therefore expect this particular book would be filled with mass ratios, slide-rules white-hot with the speed of calculation and engaging discussions of the implications of the Poynting-Robertson effect on deep space mining. Instead it is a glorious celebration of some of the wackier elements kicking around the United States deep in the now-legendary Disco Era.

2190(ish): three million humans live in space but the majority of the fourteen billion people alive live on an overcrowded Earth that is despite the best efforts of the experts of General Coordination teetering on the edge of collapse. Draconian measures to limit population growth [1] have failed to produce a steady state and aside from one act of terrorism that killed a billion people, population has only crept ever closer to the the Malthusian limit. Space resources may help but they are only delaying the crisis and if Earth collapses, the United Space Federation will soon follow.

Complicating matters greatly is the emergence of Form Change, which through simple biofeedback and other measures allows people to control their body from its appearance (and gender) to subtle elements of health itself. While experimenting with Form Change is fairly dangerous (and some of the alternate form have life-span multipliers of .2) the average human can expect to live about a century, perhaps as long as 120 years; increased lifespans only add to the population problem.

Behrooz Wolf and his partner John Larsen investigate Form Change abuse, and related matters. Overshadowing a good part of this book is their consciousness that the rules only apply to some; their investigation into abuses at an Antarctic facility called the Pleasure Dome was stymied when the well-connected owners called in favours from the elites who run this world. While this succeeded in sabotaging that investigation, it left the pair unusually determined to follow cases through to their end.

This covers their last three cases together:

Book I: Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

When an over-eager student decides (fairly illegally) to practice chromosome identification on a sample from the organ banks, he discovers that the donor appears in no records, something that should not be possible in this highly regulated world. Bey and John investigate and despite the efforts of the prime suspect, another one of this world's well-connected masters, uncover a vast and old conspiracy involving daring, often lethal and definitely illegal experiments in Form Change.

Book II: Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Three grotesque dead bodies weighed down and dumped off the coast of Guam conform to no known forms in the Biological Equipment Corporation catalog [2]. Worse, when the dead men are identified, they turn out to be USF citizen, an entirely unwanted complication. Bey and John fear the return of their old foe, Capman, but in fact the explanation for the dead men's bizarre transformation is far odder than that mad genius' great works and lies instead in the destruction of Loge, the great world that once orbited between Mars and Jupiter.

Book III: Let the great world spin forever, down the ringing grooves of change.

As John struggles to come to terms with his new circumstances and the Earth staggers beyond human control, Bey sets out to corner his nemesis Capman (Actually, Bey is Capman's nemesis; I don't know what that makes Capman to Bey). Because Capman is not quite the villain he seems to be, he tipped his hand to Bey in the previous section rather than allow John to walk into mortal danger unwarned; the trail leads of Earth and to a confrontation in deep space.

Although there are references to figures from other Sheffield series – the Lucy terrorist incident that is mentioned at one point figures into the McAndrew Chronicles and Mattin, creator of the Mattin Links, appears in a Burmeister and Carver story – I don't think Sheffield had a coherent future history as such; All the Colors of Vacuum, for example, has energy generation technology completely absent from the chronologically later Sight of Proteus. I prefer to think of each series being in its own world in a sheaf of similar time-lines.

So, biofeedback. That used to be a thing. Sheffield isn't the only SF writer to reference it (I think it turns up in one of Drake's Lacey stories, themselves a wonder of 1970s science fiction) but he's probably the only person to use it to justify willful control over form to the degree seen in this book.

The lost world of Loge, the Saturn sized world that once existed in this setting in the orbit of the asteroid belt before it went, and I have to use a technical term here, all explody, is not as one might think a hat-tip to the ancient works like Space Cadet but a reference to the works of Ovenden and Van Flandern. he term “raving fruit-cake” is all too often thrown about casually in academia so let us just say Van Flandern was a rich source of bold, non-consensus scientific models and Sheffield was embracing a grand tradition of science fiction when he used Van Flandern's work, which is science fiction acting as a form of acquired learning disability.

There's a virtual sub-genre of SF I like to call Protean SF (after this book, in fact), in which characters have far greater, finer and easier control over their bodies than is currently possible. Most but not all of the examples that come to mind – this book, Varley's Eight Worlds and Hansen's War Games – have their roots in the 1970s and I expect that that is no coincidence. The 1970s followed the tearing down of many social conventions and it makes sense that this would inspire certain lines of inquiry in SF about where else the disintegration of constraints could lead. Because this is focused on what amounts to series of police procedurals, we don't get to see a lot of how Form Change is used but it is clear people use to manage everything from complexion to gender.

(Sheffield was British so there isn't much sex in this and what there is is about as erotic as a tax form. Having read the treatment of sex by various British authors of this period, I believe the primary method of reproduction involved spores and the main source of sexual entertainment was guilt)

Women: they do exist in this universe, a few get lines (and we know from one character who has been both that being female is a superior experience to being male) and a very few are significant figures but for the most part this is a book about manly struggles between men to determine the very fate of the world.

There are some nice details. I particularly like that while the USF has access to some impressive energy sources, that does not mean space travel is easy, safe or particularly fast. Out of plane orbits in particular are a challenge. Unlike many settings, the spacers are more conservative than the people on Earth. This is because it's very easy to get oneself killed and so they are cautious about adopting new ideas and technology, to the point of handicapping themselves with respect to Form Change.

The Malthusian plot keeps consuming all the other plots in the book, which I think ultimately works to the novel's detriment. The work moves along nicely towards its conclusion but that conclusion is one familiar from many other works. Bah, I say, and not just because I wonder how it is a society that embraces wide-spread infanticide and a fairly top down government style still cannot master its population growth.

Still, this work has its moments of Disco-Era whimsy and I don't regret rereading it. Although he died in 2002, much of Sheffield's work is still in print and may be found here and here. Unfortunately, while the SF Gateway definitely offers an edition of this work, I don't think the Baen (or the SFBC) omnibus is available at this time.

[added later]

Sight of Proteus may be purchase from Baen here
or as part of this bundle.

1: Measures that definitely include killing children for not passing their “humanity test” but may not include birth control.

2: Which are still printed on paper, despite which Sheffield puts more effort into imagining how advances in computers, particularly the networked variety, than a lot of his contemporaries.

Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comment(s); comment here or there.

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I should have more of his books than I do, given my familiarity with his body of work. Maybe they evaporate with time?

Perhaps they Form Changed into the likenesses of other books?

This would be a viable life cycle, given some hand-waving. First the young paperback must find other books, so it takes on the form of something enticing that will be brought home and shelved with others. (I recently discovered that I had more than a cubic foot of David Weber novels, which certainly shouldn't be taken as meaning anything.) After the novels have matured and mated, at least some must find new nesting areas to prevent overpopulation and inbreeding; a simple transformation into John Norman or Twilight novels should get them ejected from the old habitat. (My shelves appear to be dangerously overcrowded; I should probably watch out for the appearance of fat best sellers any day now.) Once they've successfully found their way to used book stores or bus stop benches the feral novels can seek out new habitats and repeat the cycle.

Perhaps to lessen the tedium, sometimes they turn into un-mated socks and power bricks for things you no longer own?

Ah! So the books started as a way of spreading their genes ever further....

Douglas Adams: "Very few things actually get manufactured these days, because in an infinitely large Universe, such as the one in which we live, most things one could possibly imagine, and a lot of things one would rather not, grow somewhere. A forest was discovered recently in which most of the trees grew ratchet screwdrivers as fruit. The life cycle of the ratchet screwdriver is quite interesting. Once picked it needs a dark dusty drawer in which it can lie undisturbed for years. Then one night it suddenly hatches, discards its outer skin that crumbles into dust, and emerges as a totally unidentifiable little metal object** with flanges at both ends and a sort of ridge and a hole for a screw. This, when found, will get thrown away. No one knows what the screwdriver is supposed to gain from this. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, is presumably working on it."

I think he serialized a lot. I remember reading a much-improved Form Change story involving stolen micro-black holes in Analog.

maybe they evaporate with time?

You're thinking of Hawking's books.

As opposed to late-period Zelazny, which seems to evaporate from memory. IME, at least.

Ooh, I get that with Jonathan Carroll. Have read at least a half dozen of his books, have no idea which ones or what they were about, and reviewing the associated Wikipedia entries jogs nothing at all loose.

Once I started a book by Isabel Glass, and it took me a couple of chapters to realize I'd read it before. I still had no idea what was going to happen next.

Strangely, that's a pseudonym for Lisa Goldstein, with whose books I don't have the same problem.

Maybe that's a vagina dentata on the cover, and it ate the other books?

...and if Earth collapses, the United Space Federation will soon follow.

Must award points to Sheffield for subverting the "one basket" trope. A spacegoing economy, even a large one, will be dependent on Earth's economy for a long time to come.

Yeah, there are nice details in Sheffield. He's also the one whose "Bounded in a Nutshell" speculated that once people began to get used to being connected, lag times might act as a disincentive for spreading out. In the Orpheus novel, this means humans have NAFAL ships but nobody uses them due to the light speed issue.

Speaking of "light speed issue", Mattin Links are "instantaneous". No exploration of the implications of that.

The reason the awesome power sources the USF uses are not in use on Earth is the USF uses harnessed micro-blackholes and the Earth is desperate, not crazy. It's not the usual anti-technology field Terrans exude in works like ROYGBIV Mars.

The Mattin Links have to fill the vertices of a regular three-dimensional poltytope to work, so they can't move relative to each other. I don't think he thought through the consequences of a rotating polytope though . . .

One of the last hard-sf guys to be bugs about going FTl, IIRC. I guess that fits right in with expecting exotic life far -- but not too far -- away. You know, the sort of guy who has no problem with a civilization blowing up a habitable planet situated somewhere between Mars and Jupiter ;-)

I remember being somewhat bemused that he put something as remarkable as the Mattin Links in his book, and then didn't really do anything in particular with them; they're just background color. It makes some sense if this is part of a larger future-history continuity, but I never read anything more of it.

Well, what can you do with Mattin Links besides the obvious? Remember (or rather, IIRC), there can be at most 20 points hooked up, they only work on planets, and there can only be one network per planet -- no interlinked icosahedrons or a cube and a tetrahedron.

I think 1980's "The Subtle Serpent" has a version with interstellar range. Not how that worked with the five regular solids angle.

The Mind Pool and The Spheres of Heaven had Mattin Links that spanned interstellar distances, although they took a lot of energy to create and tended to be temporary. IIRC, in the former the fleeing [spoiler] opens a link to somewhere on the edge of explored space.

No, those were very specifically not Mattin Links.

Right, but the author was the one who chose those constraints. Seems odd to do it that way--introduce instantaneous teleportation into your world and then limit it so that it has relatively little story impact, because it basically works as a substitute for long-haul jetliners.

Matt M.

There's at least one story in the politicking about where the 20 points go on Earth.

Didn't … uhm … doesn't Varley have a story where the protagonist is pulled out of his disney vacation because he's needed to deal with economic issues and as his home planet is Pluto a little market volatility all those light-hours away is a major crisis by the time they can respond to it? Or am I shifting stories over to Varley again? [1]

[1] I reassigned one Poul Anderson short story to Varley I guess because it seemed to make sense as a Varley story. Guy goes through form-change to be a tiger for his girlfriend for a recreational weekend, while he's in tiger form, aliens invade, civilization collapses, there's no more instamatic meat synthesizers, and he's getting hungrier.

Pluto was economically disadvantaged in that way in the Eight Worlds, yes.

What is the title for this?

I reassigned one Poul Anderson short story to Varley I guess because it seemed to make sense as a Varley story. Guy goes through form-change to be a tiger for his girlfriend for a recreational weekend, while he's in tiger form, aliens invade, civilization collapses, there's no more instamatic meat synthesizers, and he's getting hungrier.

If I haven't got this muddled up again it's Poul Anderson's "The Star Beast", which predates Heinlein's by just enough that the titles could get hopelessly muddled on the Internet too.

That's a Varley. The economist was going through a second childhood in a mock Polynesia, which is most of the tale. I'm blanking on the title and am too lazy to get up and search my bookshelf at the moment.

The net growth rate isn't Baby Boomish: back of the envelope says an average of 0.5% growth rate will triple population in two centuries. That's almost ZPG but such a huge difference over time between ZPG and almost ZPG.

I'd like to see a BBC or at least Sky TV adaptation of this.


The Great Cultural Icons People Want To Look Like don't seem to include anyone from after about 1960.


one of the books has a person who has adopted Shakespeare's appearance.

This one. She hoped it would help her writing, I believe.

That is completely consistent with how people on Star Trek show little interest in creative works that were not in the public domain circa the turn of the millennium. Obviously the 22nd Century was a cultural wasteland of selfies and cat memes.

The image of LOLCaptain Picard speeking ICanHazzish is amusing, though.

Although nicknaming one of his characters Bey has achieved the unintended result that I can't help picturing him as Beyoncé.

I remember reading this, or at least one of these books, and thinking something vaguely about drugs.

I can't remember if I thought I needed to take them to continue reading the book, or if the author was clearly on them.

I don't think I knew that Sheffield's use of the exploded-Belt-planet trope was specifically from van Flandern (I didn't know who he was until years after I read this book, when he popped up on Usenet).

Ovenden and Van Flandern are both mentioned by name in the text :D

That would be A Clue.

Measures that definitely include killing children for not passing their “humanity test” but may not include birth control.

Was this the novel that included a technically-not-human created lifeform that could pass the Humanity Test? I recall one story involved characters panicing over the possibility of false positives and false negatives, which apparently nobody had thought of before.

Not sure the Logians could pass, no.

Also not sure if old people are subjected to humanity tests despite loss of the ability to use form change being a known medical issue with the elderly but probably that is seen as unnecessary because health care relies on form change; death generally follows that deficit, either natural or totally voluntary euthanasia.

Biofeedback machines for controlling migraine headaches worked; my mother used one. It still sounds like a perfectly plausible control method for anything involving the body, though it does require a fair amount of patience and practice (and the idea of sitting quietly, concentrating, and not doing anything else seems rather unusual these days).

I was taught to use one in the 2010s for migraine. The trick is that they're teaching you how to do it all by yourself; the machine is just to let you know when you've got it right.

It's still a standard treatment -- the Mayo Clinic covers it.

I really liked the setting, overall, and wanted more stories in them. But I've got a weakness for Protean Society stories and they still feel like a setting that's under-used.

(It can't just be too whimsical for modern SF for someone to, say, figure they're going to spend some time as a two-thirds scale living replica of the Statue of Liberty, surely?)

I seem to remember re-reading several times a scene of Bey in the Form Change Machine struggling to the far side of a sea of shapes, or some metaphor like that, and feeling like there was so much metaphor and so little specificity that I had no idea what it was he actually, you know, did or why it should've been impressive.

My suspicion is that at some point a scene becomes too hard to pin down and I mentally ignore the whole thing and trust that if any of it mattered I'll pick it up from the way the story continues. This keeps me from getting hung up on single pages for too long but makes mysteries a never-ending source of confusion and wonder.

> (It can't just be too whimsical for modern SF for someone to, say, figure they're going to spend some time as a two-thirds scale living replica of the Statue of Liberty, surely?)

You have spoilers there, almost, for one recurring bit in Martin's _Wild Cards_ series...


I read the sequel first, and I remember being disappointed when I finally read this one. For starters it's a fixup novel, and a first novel, and suffers as a result. The setting was much darker and grittier (and more cohesive) in the sequel.

I didn't like that Sheffield burdened his protagonist with a name like Behrooz Wolf just so he can have a cool nickname (I've had enough Beowolf references in Niven). It's not the only time he did this - I don't quite remember which novel the other one from is but he had a long Indian name starting with "Bat" just so his living quarters could be named the Bat Cave. On the plus side Sheffield had several middle eastern / asian characters as a result.

Yeah, I think biofeedback features in a number of Vonda McIntyre's books, including Dreamsnake, where it is used (not a spoiler? rot13 to be safe) ol zra gb pbageby sregvyvgl ol nygrevat fpebgny grzcrengherf bhgfvqr gur ubfcvgnoyr enatr sbe fcrez

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