Proteus Manifest Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Sheffield


Although the two halves of Proteus Manifest share the same protagonist and the same general setting, thematically they are quite different. Sight of Proteus, the author’s first novel, is part of its era in terms of its primary concerns. Although its central premise, that of shape-shifting being used as a way to transform society, is also that of Jack L. Chalker’s Well World series of novels (which begins with the 1977 work Midnight at the Well of Souls), Sheffield and Chalker take the premise in different directions. Chalker sees shape-shifting as a basis for spiritual and moral regeneration; Sheffield sees form-change as more superficial, an act that does little to alter a shape-shifter’s soul.

Sight of Proteus is not primarily about form-changing. It is instead a novel that explores the possibility of individuality in an era of limits. Like John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975) and Frederik Pohl’s Jem: The Making of a Utopia (1979), Sheffield’s novel portrays a planned, constrained world running out of resources, replicating that decade’s worries about overpopulation and the exhaustion of natural resources. Even form-changing, the one activity that enables the masses to explore their individuality, is carefully regulated and controlled. When Bey Wolf tracks down the illegal forms Kaplan creates, he is not merely investigating a criminal but also is suppressing one of the few renegades in a world that ruthlessly suppresses deviations from the established order.

Stylistically, Sight of Proteus...

(The entire section is 653 words.)