by Mark Wadley
In a gross, lyrical passage from the short story “Know How, Can Do,” a roundworm with a human brain beautifully details its urge to mate, “to wrap [it]self around another body, to taste its oozing salts and earthy humors.” Thoreau’s Microscope is full of these moments where body and language intersect, the abstraction of thought contextualized with the guts of physicality.
Author Michael Blumlein is a science fiction writer and actual medical doctor. He’s written a number of acclaimed novels, including The Movement of Mountains, The Healer, and X, Y—adapted into feature film in 2004—as well as many short stories, published by Interzone, Omni, and Semiotext(e). Thoreau’s Microscope is a collection of short works: four stories and the titular essay, along with an “Outspoken Interview,” a hallmark of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series. In these pieces, Blumlein traces a path from an immortal figure brought low by disease to a worm granted sentience by science, with stops at health statistics, cancer, and circumcision along the way. Even at a slim 115 pages, it’s quite a trip.
Though Blumlein’s previous work tends toward science fiction and horror, these stories feel more like the transrealist work of Rudy Rucker, influenced by poetry and personal experience as much as hard science. Rather than standard-issue SF, this is science and fiction, intellectual and emotional in equal parts. All five pieces use biology and language as dual lenses to focus deeply felt stories that ask what it means to be human, right down to the DNA. This results in something close to body horror in grotesque stories like “Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f” and “Know How, Can Do,” while the other three pieces consider disease and the body from a more grounded—but no less harrowing—perspective.
The nonfictional title piece perfectly synthesizes Blumlein’s preoccupations and directly addresses the collection’s central concerns. Beginning with an account of a trek through the Sierra Nevada mountains, the piece then turns to a consideration of Henry David Thoreau’s death from tuberculosis. This leads directly to the revelation that Blumlein has been undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Blumlein uses excerpts from his journal to explore a full range of self-reflection, emotionality, hard science, and curiosity as he moves from understanding cancer as “a dark fat evil eye, sinister and malignant” to “a window into who we are, a deep deep window into the…bacchanal of life.” What follows is a stunning meditation on disease and the inexorable approach of death.
Blumlein compassionately argues for a view of disease and death being as much a part of human life as empathy, anxiety, or love. Written in 1997, “Paul and Me” is a tall tale for the late-20th century, a juxtaposition of legend and reality that gets at the heart of human frailty with remarkable tenderness. Late in the story, the aging narrator encounters Paul Bunyan—a friend and former lover—wasting away after twenty years of sickness and grief. “You planning on dying?” the narrator asks. The giant man responds, “I dream of it sometimes. Is dreaming planning? You tell me.” Under Blumlein’s microscope, not even demigods are afforded immunity. But disease and death are never evils to be defeated; rather, they’re an integral part of who we are. As the scientist in “Know How, Can Do” explains to her sentient test subject, “Being gone is part of being here, it’s part of being human.”
Beyond the compelling biological facets of the collection, Blumlein clearly delights in language, contaminating sterile medical jargon with visceral lyricism and clever linguistic devices. Adam, the roundworm narrator of “Know How, Can Do,” tracks his own mental development with the language of his narration—from syntactically simple to complex to joyously florid. Ten pages into the story, Adam celebrates, “I have my ease (I got them yesterday)…I have my ewes, too. You, I mean. My u’s,” subtly revealing that the whole first third of the story was written without two critical vowels. By learning language, Adam learns what it means to be human: “Living without language,” he says, “is a hopeless sort of living, which is to say unburdened.” Language, then—along with mortality—is a burden worth shouldering.
Despite his tendency for minute observation, Thoreau rarely turned his microscope on himself, even in the late stages of his tuberculosis. While this dismays and fascinates Blumlein, he notes that “self exposure, particularly of the most intimate, gruesome, physical details of one’s own body and health, as riveting and irresistible as it may sound, is not everyone’s cup of tea.” Fortunately, Blumlein respects Thoreau’s restraint and discretion while fully embracing his own gruesome physicality. For a collection so heavily concerned with disease and death, Thoreau’s Microscope rarely feels melancholic; Blumlein’s acceptance of mortality allows him to hopefully and exuberantly dig into the blood and guts of humanity.