|summary||Bear spins a plausible yet incredible tale of mankind's next giant leap.|
Greg Bear is indisputably one of the preeminent "hard" science fiction writers working today. His past writings have taken ideas from many areas of contemporary scientific research and spun them into fantastic universes. Blood Music and Queen of Angels, aside from being absolutely engrossing tales, helped nanotechnology enter the mainstream vocabulary. In addition to his excellent treatment of science, the development of his characters seldom suffers at the hands of his concepts, and it is always the characters that make the story rewarding. His latest effort is no exception. Darwin's Radio sets complex and believable characters in a story that puts forth a convincing theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution.
Darwin's Radio is set just after the (not-even-slightly apocalyptic) turn of the millenium in a universe that is recognizably our own. The story revolves around Kaye Lang, a brilliant molecular biologist who specializes in the study of retroviruses. Specifically, she studies endogenous retroviruses - RNA-based viruses that integrate their genetic material into the host's DNA, becoming part of the host's genome. As the book opens, Lang is on a trip to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, trying to win the cooperation of local scientists in a business venture. On a side trip to investigate a recently discovered mass grave filled with the bodies of pregnant women, she meets Christopher Dicken, a virus hunter for the Centers for Disease Control. Dicken is on the trail of a peculiar illness (eventually known as "Herod's Flu") that seems only to strike young pregnant women and cause miscarriages. Soon after her return to the United States, Kaye finds a media spotlight as other researchers discover that Herod's Flu is actually a Scattered Human Endogenous retroVirus Activation - SHEVA - which she predicted. SHEVA soon reaches epidemic levels around the world, causing virtually every pregnant woman to miscarry.
Meanwhile, two fortune-seeking mountaineers lead anthropologist Mitch Rafelson to a startling discovery in the Austrian Alps - a mummified Neanderthal man and woman with a human baby. Mitch sees the Neandertal family as direct evidence of the speciation of Homo sapiens and soon intuits a connection among his discovery, the Georgian mass grave and SHEVA. Already discredited by a previous fiasco with Native American remains, and held in suspicion for the company he kept in the Alps, Mitch is unable to influence the scientific inquiry into his discovery. However, he does eventually connect with Christopher and Kaye, who are working to explain and control SHEVA amid increasingly panicked reactions from the general population. Lang initially assists the federal government's efforts, but never really supports the view that SHEVA is a disease. Like Mitch, she's convinced that the virus is an agent of change for humanity.
I don't think I'm spoiling the book by stating that the story concerns human evolution. If the title doesn't give it away, a cursory glance at the dust jacket reveals comments like Anne McCaffery's: "WOW!...a human upgrade..." In the first 150 pages or so, through Mitch and Kaye's eyes, Bear gives the reader enough evidence to draw the conclusion that SHEVA is responsible for the human baby born to the Neanderthals and will soon create the next evolution of humans. However, he doesn't grace Christopher Dicken and his fellows in the CDC with the same insight. The government continues to treat SHEVA as a pathogen that threatens humanity's existence (which is not an altogether incorrect viewpoint). The CDC can't prevent the miscarriages, and Bear provides a vivid depiction of the violence that results from the government's inability to accept the truth and communicate it to the people.
This novel provides an excellent story as well as some new concepts to ponder. The evolutionary ideas Bear puts forth, aside from sounding extremely plausible (to this non-microbiologist), provoke some very entertaining thoughts. Humans have spent the last hundred years or so modifying nature to suit ourselves. We're used to dealing with problems that we inflict on ourselves. How do we react when nature modifies us? This conflict forms a vibrant backdrop for the human story - the political ambitions that blind Christopher to the true nature of SHEVA, Kaye's brilliance in research and naivete in practically ever other pursuit, Mitch's frustration as his past prevents him from persuading other scientists to his point of view. Bear renders the romance (yes, there's romance) between two major characters compellingly without being lurid, with a bit of unrequited love as garnish. The plot motors along, but gives the reader some time to consider the implications of evolving humans as the government's efforts to "cure" SHEVA patients goes nowhere. Even then, the author entertains us with nonviolent protests, outright riots, and pagan fertility rites. Bear's prose is crisp, if not quite up to the stratospherically high standards he set in Queen of Angels. The ending, while not totally unsatisfying, leaves several questions unanswered and is wide open for a sequel. This is not necessarily a Bad Thing, since Darwin's Radio presents a world that will certainly bear further exploration.
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