Sight of Proteus

Charles Sheffield

65989 600

(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 growth1 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 forms 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 catalog2. 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 hereor 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.

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