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Modern Midwich Cuckoos,
This review is from: Darwin's Radio (Paperback)
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.