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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Darwin’s Radio

Reviewed: May 7, 2004
By: Greg Bear
Publisher: Ballantine Books
538 pages, $9.99

While the publisher had deliberately removed this book from its Del Rey science fiction imprint and labelled it simply “fiction” on the spine, this is a science fiction novel. Greg Bear likes to work with the narrative formulas common to mainstream and thriller fiction, but his work is driven by an interest in hard and speculative science.

He’s even provided us with a short primer on biology and a glossary of terms in the back of the book. Don’t be intimidated by that feature. The story works whether you look there or not. It takes its energy from a couple of simple questions.

How does evolution work? How did we get from that overachieving fish that struggled onto the land to an overachieving biped that seems bent on wiping out all the fish? In some variations on Darwin’s basic theory of survival of the fittest, evolution works in incremental stages that, by trial and error, come up with something that survives and passes on superior traits to the next generation. In other theories, the changes come in big chunks, many of which are unsuccessful, and which could be termed mutations.

What really happened to the Neanderthals? Why were they supplanted by homo sapiens so suddenly and completely? Did we kill them all or did something else happen?

Combine those ideas with our very real fears about disease pandemics like SARS, and the result is a page turner of a tale that takes place just around the corner in time.

It begins with Mitch Rafelson’s discovery of a frozen Neanderthal family high in the Austrian Alps. Mitch already has a tarnished scientific reputation because of an incident with some American Indian remains back in the States, so when this little expedition of his turns out to be a disaster and leaves him in recovery from a serious fall and exposure, it is no surprise that people don’t want to listen to what he found.

Kaye Lang is a molecular biologist locked into an unfortunate marriage and possessed of a keen insight into genetics. We meet her in Georgia (the country) where she is researching the curative properties of certain bacteriophages that seem to grow in sewage there. The contents of a mass grave from the troubles in that land set her mind to thinking in an entirely different direction. Who killed all these men, women and children and why?

Christopher Dicken is known as a “virus hunter” working for the American Epidemic Intelligence Service. His job description has him tracking incidents of odd diseases, looking for delivery vectors and patterns. He crosses paths with Kaye in Georgia, but he has information she doesn’t about what happened there, and in a few other places. He knows what, but not really why.

We spend a bit of time meeting all these people and getting involved in their lives before the problem brewing backstage comes to the fore. There is a flu-like virus sweeping around the world. It causes pregnant women to abort their fetuses, and then begin a second pregnancy spontaneously. During the second pregnancy, there are temporary physical changes in the mother and father. A lot of the babies don’t develop properly, but those who do are, well, different - different in the same degree that Homo Sapiens was different from Homo Neanderthalis.

It’s Kay Lang’s theory that evolution is working in jumps, that the potential for sudden change is buried in our genes, and is triggered by environmental and social conditions to produce a wide range of possible mutations when the time is right. If she is correct, then her generation is about to become the last generation of homo sapiens, and their children will be something else.

This is not a startlingly new SF notion. Arthur C. Clarke wrote about sudden change in Childhood’s End. A.E. Van Vogt tackled the lives of emerging mutant humans in Slan. John Wyndham massaged the idea more frighteningly in The Midwich Cuckoos (Village of the Damned in North America).

While there is a scientific detective story going on here, the outcome of that work is actually given away by the blurb on the book’s cover, so it won’t be a surprise to the reader. Getting there is most of the fun, if one can call it that. Of perhaps greater interest is the interplay among the central characters, and the social reactions that flow from the revelations about this “disease”, ironically called Herod’s Flu come to be known by larger numbers of people.

Herod ordered all the babies in the region near Bethlehem slaughtered after he heard the Three Wise Men’s prophecy about the birth of Christ, so apocalyptic interpretations of events spring up pretty quickly.

Just as there are some movies you don’t want to see while you are flying, this might be a book you would want to skip if you’re an expectant parent. For others, it will be an engrossing read.

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