Art History in “Sight of Proteus” by Charles Sheffield

(I read the paperback edition, but Amazon would not give me a proper link to embed.)

In a science fiction police procedural involving officers arresting people who commit illegal shape shifting (or “form-change” as the novel calls it), the main cop, Behrooz Wolf, finds himself in a cat-and-mouse search for scientist Robert Capman and ends up in something bigger than his job entails.

Well, that’s what the summary on the back of the paperback explained, but honestly, the revelation came off as anti-climactic.  While there were talks of major upheavals on Earth involving new technology, it felt too far away for me to feel invested.  Furthermore, the characters were all too much alike and exuded the emotional range of a nearly dead person.  Seriously, they greet big revelations and plot twists with the verbal equivalent of a twitch and then move on to the next scene.  The cast from Equilibrium were less emotionally stunted than this group of characters.

There’s also art history.  While the story takes place in a future full of space travel and drastic body modifications, the first references an old print of Johann Bode.  I did some searching, and one does exist in real life.  When investigating the deaths of some aliens, Wolf, and another person tagging along visit a business intended to bring your fantasies to life.  Courtesy of advanced technology, Wolf and his partner view a scenario that apparently analyses one’s personality.  The computer visualizes a scene from Ancient Egypt, complete with building pyramids and Wolf not knowing whether it’s Cheops or Imhotep overlooking the build.  This scene acts as a commentary for Robert Capman.  In the novel’s’ universe, people laud Capman as a genius for his improvements on form-change technology, but he did it through brutal methods.  With the mentions of Cheops’ use of slaves in the Egyptian scenario, the author Sheffield obviously saw Capman as Cheops, a person who improved on original designs.  This book was published in the late seventies, and from what I have learned, slaves did not build the pyramids. Egyptian myths act as a recurring motif in the book.

Now, despite my criticism seen at the beginning, I don’t regret reading the novel.  As long as you like high concept ideas about shape shifting, interstellar travel, and weird things in space (there’s some outdated terms for people of Asian origins, but it only happens once), go ahead and check out the book.

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