Top positive review
11 people found this helpful
on 6 December 2003
Writing a trilogy presents writer and reader alike with a dilemma. The writer must try to make each book, especially the middle book, stand alone. Yet he must also carry the underlying narrative through the story and lead to the final volume. Readers, particularly new ones, must take the risk that the second volume is worth the investment in time and money. Bear marginally succeeds in making this book stand on its own merits by giving us sufficient background threads as the story progresses. Thankfully, he doesn't use tedious flashbacks to achieve this end. Reprises are helpful to the new reader, but can be hopelessly boring to someone who's read a first volume. This compelling speculation on how evolution might work carries over from the previous volume, Darwin's Radio. It isn't necessary to have read the first volume, but it simplifies the understanding of the characters.
In this sequel, the life of the new generation of SHEVA "virus children" is portrayed. The children discover what it means to be "different" in American society. They learn how vicious a reaction to the different can become. The SHEVA children are shunted out of sight in camps the Nazis would have envied. Among these children growing up in such an environment is Stella Nova, offspring of two of the key figures in the earlier book. Like the other children, she remains a fugitive, even when living at home. Children as outcasts is one of the greatest forms of tragedy, and Bear is adept at the portrayal.
Bear weaves the feelings of both child and parent with sensitive skill. Isolation of the SHEVA children, as it's done with other children in similar situations, results in a new identity. New feelings and a new language develop both from the children's isolation and from talents their genetic heritage grants them. They have powerful senses of smell - they use pheromones as a form of communication. These all combine to create a fresh sense of community in the children. They form "demes" - an incipient social structure. How will the new groupings relate with the previous society is a question Bear opens, but doesn't resolve. Partly this is due to the SHEVA children's youth. Although some are close to maturity, the new arrangement is only beginning. Self-awareness of differences, however, is strong. Stella Nova forcefully declares to her parents, "I'm not like you!".
As outlandish as this may sound, Bear's science foundation for this story is impeccable. While he's careful in a "Short Biological Primer" at the end of the book to identify what's known and what is speculation, it's clear nothing here is implausible. The results of an extensive literature search permeates the book - sometimes in overwhelming detail. Do we really need to know how many different compounds can be used to re-hydrate a mammal?
That specious criticism aside, there is much value to be gained reading Bear's "middle volume" in this trilogy. The social issues are combined with business concerns and, of course, the political realm. What will be the legal position of children tucked away in concentration camps? More to the point, what is the mental make-up of the new children? One of the major characters provides a hint through a series of epiphanies she experiences. There seems to be a strong need for speculative fiction writers to re-introduce us to gods, and Bear is following this pattern both in the plot and in a "Caveats" essay concluding the book. It is mildly astonishing that such an issue is likely to form the basis for the third book. However, the question is left dangling so precipitously at the end, it must be resolved somehow. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa,