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HALL OF FAMEon 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]
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on 15 December 2003
Darwin’s Radio is a pleasure for someone who loves hard science fiction, as I do. Here’s the premise: SHEVA, a retrovirus long-buried in our genes, suddenly awakens and begins to attack pregnant women, forcing them to miscarry after three months. But that’s just the beginning – after the miscarriage, these same women spontaneously become pregnant again, this time developing a fetus that’s not quite human. The federal government, led by the science establishment, after first denying the truth, then begins pressing parents to turn over their strange children to the government.
This premise just blew my mind; it’s creative, believable and terrifying. The science was complex and I referred to the glossary, included at the back of the book, several times. As I progressed through the pages, I was reminded of Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress’s wonderful story. Both novels explore the rapid evolution of humanity into another species, although Greg Bear, unlike Kress, makes humanity involuntary travelers on the journey.
My major complaint is the slow pace. Too much time was spent on a romance between the two major characters. Even more frustrating was the endless politics between and among the scientific community and their patrons. Although Darwin’s Radio is science fiction and not a techno-thriller, more action – yes, a little violence, too – would have strengthened the brew.
The bottom line: a slightly flawed but thought-provoking tale.
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"Something pops out of our genes and makes monster babies ... with a single huge ovary?"
So asks the incredulous United States Surgeon General in DARWIN'S RADIO, a fictional yarn of human genetics gone malevolently haywire. Or is it simply evolution leaving the path of gradualism as defined by Darwin and taking a more scenic route?
All good stories have a villain. In this case, it's SHEVA, a suddenly activated human endogenous retrovirus, i.e. one that resides in the "normal" genetic code on our chromosomes, that now forms infectious virus particles capable of lateral transmission between sexually active adults. What result are severe perturbations of the pregnancies of infected woman, and a bizarre skin condition that affects the faces of both parents. The world's best scientific minds can't stop it. And what is the connection between the mummified remains of a 40,000-year old Neanderthal family found in the Alps, and the corpses exhumed from a 10-year old mass grave in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, all of which contain SHEVA?
Despite being (just) a work of popular science fiction, DARWIN'S RADIO poses an interesting, alternative hypothesis to the widely accepted concept of Darwinian evolution, i.e. natural adaptation one genetic mutation at a time, and makes some perceptive inferences on the nature of the species self-identity built into the human psyche. Moreover, the main characters are reasonably well constructed, particularly Kaye Lang, the swim-against-the-tide geneticist, and Mitch Rafelson, the outcast anthropologist. However, the novel is, at 525 paperbacked pages, just a tad too long. As it was, the conclusion's "pay-off" didn't seem quite worth the time that I'd spent to get there. I wanted to be able to say "Wow!", but couldn't. However, a 4-star rating still isn't too shabby.
By the way. Do you have pronounced freckles on your face? If so, the Feds may be wanting to deport you to Iowa even now. Pack a lunch.
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on 18 May 2001
I enjoyed Bear's 'Forge of God', but was disappointed by the sequel 'Anvil of Stars'. I hesitated on buying 'Darwin's Radio' but I'm so pleased I did. I enjoy science fiction set in the here-and-now, and this is the best I've read yet. Having the advent of a new species unfurl before one's eyes is quite thrilling, especially when the world seems determined to set it's face against it. The female lead's pregnancy was unnecessary as it 'took up' 9 months after the bulk of the story but I was gripped throughout. I'd be interested to read a sequel, tho' perhaps a more elaborate end to this book might have been better. Nonetheless, excellent.
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on 15 March 2003
The subject of Homo Superior or indeed Human Evolution has been a rare topic in SF of late, but Bear has taken the theme and reinvented it anew in an ingenious and compelling novel.
Bear is an established writer of Big Science. His work is always solidly based on extrapolation of real scientific principles and as such produces incredibly plausible works in which huge ideas are dealt with. More importantly Bear is always guaranteed to provide solid characters and societies which are impacted and changed by discoveries or events in a logical and realistic way.
Darwin's Radio builds its premise around contemporary research on redundant genetic material in the human genome and on phages, beneficial viruses which can be employed in place of antibiotics to fight bacterial infection.
The central idea is that human DNA contains an ancient HERV (Human Endogenous Retrovirus) which is not only capable of converting the DNA within the ovaries of a human foetus, but also of infection throughout the human population.
Three people gradually come to the conclusion that SHEVA (as the virus is named) has been instrumental in leaps of human evolution and in particular, causing Neanderthal Man (or rather woman) to give birth to Homo Sapiens.
Bear makes this scenario horribly believable and concentrates on the frantic race for a vaccine while the world, experiencing an epidemic of miscarriages and abnormal births, erupts into chaos.
As is typical in a Bear book, politics on many levels provides a stumbling block toward common sense and the need to face the truth, in this case about the real nature of SHEVA.
The true horrors of the novel, such as the mob violence, the mass-killings of pregnant women and the outbreaks of religious fundamentalism and human sacrifice are for the most part kept in the background while Bear revels in his mastery of focusing on individual characters and through them disseminating the scientific research as it develops, hindered by the agendas of individuals and political systems and indeed by political divisions within the scientific community itself.
The ending is atypical of Bear, who previously tended to bring his novels to a grand climax such as in 'Moving Mars' where again, politics and science collide to produce a denouement where the planet Mars is transported across the galaxy to a new home.
The understated ending here is downbeat but optimistic.
Wisely perhaps, Bear only gives us fleeting glimpses of what the future of the SHEVA children may hold.
I wanted to read on, and hope very much that Bear is considering a sequel to this wonderful story of genetics and evolution.
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on 4 April 2004
Darwin's Radio is my first Greg Bear novel, after my hearing many good things about him over the years - and I wasn't disappointed with it. It's a well-written novel, crammed with scientific ideas, questionable politics and real people - more than enough to hold the attention of any sci-fi reader. Sadly, I never really felt any great emotional connection to the main characters until the very end of the book, when the answer to the big question of the book - is what's happening a disease or the next step of human evolution - was coming clear. I wish Darwin's Radio had continued for another few hundred pages, to see where Bear's speculations would have eventually led us. Maybe I can wait for a sequel.....
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on 13 June 2010
I'm a really big fan of Greg Bear, but this one rather misses the mark for me. It has a pretty good premise but it takes far too long to get to what is ultimately a predictable conclusion. It's only 430 pages in this edition but there's really only enough in the plot for a book half this length. There is an awful lot of dialogue to give credence to the science behind it but this does not sustain interest, and I ended up constantly checking the page number to see how far I had got through it. The worst thing about it is the love story between two of the main characters, which is poorly written and cringeworthy. I'm certainly not going to bother with the sequel. In my opinion, Bear was far better when he wrote a purer form of SF, as in Eon and Anvil of Stars - big ideas are his forte and these earlier books play to his great strengths. Character development and dialogue are not what he does best and Darwin's Radio underlines these shortcomings.
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on 2 April 2006
I first read this book when a friend leant it to me after telling me that there was too much science for her liking and that I'd probably enjoy it. She was right.
After the inital shock of just how much science there was in the book I settled into it surprisingly quickly. The characters were well developed, the story fast paced enough to keep me interested. And the chapters were short enough to keep me happy - I knew that I had time to read them practically anywhere.
All in all this was a great book and the sequel was just as good. I'd recommed this to anyone who enjoys science fiction - but be warned, sometimes this book is more science than fiction.
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on 15 November 2000
There is loads of science in this fiction, and the author freely admits that a lot of it is speculative. Considerable skill is required to wrap any kind of story around such potentially dense material but Bear carries it off brilliantly until about 2/3 of the way through. Unfortunately his plot involves a full-term pregnancy for one of the main protagonists, and there is a feeling of the story being strung out rather to accomodate the gestation. Of course, the birth provides a conclusion to the story but no surprises since the outcome has been amply telegraphed by what has gone before. The drama has very little wind left in its sales in the closing pages, which I found disappointing. Its well worth reading though, since the premise is startling and well thought through, the final evidence of which being that I would certainly fork out for a sequel.
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A great book about our next evolutionary step and how the public and government react to it. There is a lot of science in the book, but not prohibitively so, and it is interesting to see how government departments react to mass illnesses and fight for control of how it should be dealt with. An original premise, well told and perfect commuting and lunchtime reading. I agree with other reviewers that the short chapters make it easy to fly through this book, which only seems to add to the pace of the story.

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