Del Rey science fiction - copyright 1999
Book read in November 1999
Rating: 8/10 (Highly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Darwin's Radio won the 2000 Nebula Award for best novel
The book centers on biologist Kaye Lang and anthropologist Mitch Rafelson. In the opening scene in the Alps, Rafelson discovers the mummified remains of a prehistoric family in which the child appears strangely different from its parents. Meanwhile, Lang has been developing a theory of how retroviruses embedded in human DNA might become active and contagious. The government enlists her help when her theory is confirmed; an endogenous retrovirus has awoken. The virus, dubbed Herod's flu, triggers miscarriages among women, and is spreading so quickly it threatens to wipe out an entire generation.
As research progresses, Lang soon begins to suspect that the virus is more than just a disease, but somehow is part of the evolutionary process. The government agencies battling Herod's flu resist any such suggestions, in large part because Lang's ideas might jeopardize the agencies' funding. Lang and Rafelson determine to uncover the truth without help from the government.
I was fascinated with the premise of this novel. A sudden advance in human evolution is hardly a new idea in science fiction, having been explored in such established classics as A.E. van Vogt's Slan and Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, but never before has the notion seemed so plausible. Without lecturing (except in the biological primer appended to the text), Greg Bear leaves little doubt that his speculations are grounded in extensive research into cutting edge biological science. He handles the confusion, fear, and prejudice that would result from such a sudden evolutionary advance quite skillfully, although he leaves the ultimate outcome for a sequel.
I enjoyed Bear's writing style in Darwin's Radio more than in any of his other works that I've read. The characterization in particular is strong. Everyone in the book has a blend of good points and shortcomings. Even the villains, such as the character Augustine, are not evil, but simply caught up too fully in playing politics rather than trying to do the right thing. I found the myopic politics of Bear's bureaucrats sometimes funny and sometimes frighteningly believable.My only minor nit-pick is that Bear took too long to get into the impact on society of Herod's flu. The first half of the book focuses on scientists in their labs, and we don't see how ordinary people's lives are being affected by the epidemic. We are told that people are rioting, but we're not sure exactly why. Thankfully, Lang and Rafelson do come into contact with a wider range of characters later in the novel. By the end of the book I was quite satisfied with how the story played out, and eager to get my hands on the sequel.
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|Copyright © 1999 Aaron Hughes|