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