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Evolution by jerks?
on 15 October 2003
For those unfamiliar with evolutionary theories, there are two contesting ideas about the process. One is Charles Darwin's thesis of gradualism - successive generations change imperceptibly until a new species emerges. The other is "punctuated equilibrium" - long periods of stasis interrupted by sudden modifications resulting in new lifeforms. The latter, introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge - Jay Niles in Bear's book - has received a new, fictional boost in this compelling novel. Greg Bear has found out why the rise of modern humans in the paleoanthropological record. It's because a virus-like manifestation of our DNA causes immense changes in the genome. Discovering this, in a world where viruses such as AIDS makes rampant, high-velocity changes in its genome, is a formidable task.
Bear has restored a strong scientific base to "science fiction" where it has languished too often in the hands of the inept. He merges good biology with a strong assessment of a society under extreme stress. The characters are often buffeted by forces inadequately understood. The chief protagonist, Mitch Rafelson, opens the story as an acquisitive villain, his greed tempered by a desire to prove himself a valid researcher. On the feminist side [a must in today's fiction] is Kaye Lang - her married name which takes over forty pages to reveal - is also a scientist. Her work, unblemished, is considered Nobel material. Bringing these two together requires some convoluted machinations, but Bear manages to bring it off after a suicide and bureaucratic ineptness lead to the inevitable. They're an oddly matched couple, but two lonely people in the hands of a talented writer can overcome indominable odds. Especially when confronted by a powerful common enemy.
The story rests on how bureaucracies respond to stress. In this case the stress is dealing with a virus striking only women. Why are so many American [and other nationalities, but we'll get to that later] conceiving but losing embryoes? Worse, why is it happening in tandem, with second pregnancies in many cases not the result of sex? Bear takes us through the workings of many of America's health agencies, their workings and their personnel as the story unfolds. The image is far from encouraging, but not overdrawn. Chris Dicken, a functionary in one of these hierarchical satrapies, is caught up in a search for truth while struggling to maintain his position. Bear draws Dicken as well, if not better, than the rest of his characters. His situation is complicated by his desire for Kaye, and Bear gives us a quality picture of a man beset by immense contradictions. In Dicken, Bear gives us a real picture of hubris, a portrait untrammeled by false ethics or marred by unconvincing powers.
Bear's scientific credentials provide a rare solidity to his fine story line in this book. If there's a flaw, it's in his failure to invoke some mention of world reaction to this phenomenal crisis. Since most of the characters find occasion to watch the news, it's almost astonishing that foreign reaction, particularly in the "Third World" is omitted altogether. What is astounding is his utter failure to relate conditions in Africa. That continent, after all, is the home to modern humanity. Its population contains the highest genetic diversity. If clues were to be found to explain what might be happening in America in the novel, that would be the place to find them. It's a very "American" book, looking deeply inward while ignoring the remainder of the planet. Brief forays into the former Soviet Georgia, Mexico, and, indirectly, Austria don't redeem this flaw.. However, one can forgive this lapse in the face of a gripping story, realistic portrayals and the compelling finale. Bear is worth all his awards. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]