Darwin's Radio

by Greg Bear

Cover image

Series: Darwin #1
Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: September 1999
Printing: July 2000
ISBN: 0-345-43524-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 538

Buy at Powell's Books

An anthropologist with a history of ignoring rules to get at what he thinks will be a scientific discovery, in the company of a couple of sketchy opportunists, discovers two Neanderthal bodies high in the Alps. With them is a child who looks human. An expert virologist is called to investigate a mass grave in the Republic of Georgia and discovers that they're recent, not dating from past wars. Most of the killed women were pregnant. And a retrovirus long kept in inactive portions of the human genome has somehow become an active retrovirus again, and is causing fetus malformation and miscarriage in pregnant women.

Darwin's Radio is a biological thriller, following the investigation of a disease that may not be a disease and the political and mass reaction to an infection that causes pregnancy and miscarriage. It's put together in the classic thriller mode, starting with a slow build as the problem takes shape and we meet the people involved and then slowly raising the stakes and adding complications as mysteries are solved and politics become more complex. Bear thankfully sticks to only a few viewpoint characters: the scientists who figure out what's truly happening, and some of the government officials who are trying to keep popular reaction under control and deal with the threat that the SHEVA virus makes to the structure of human society. Most of the action is political, but the story basis is near-future semi-plausible science fiction and the ending is pure SF.

One of the things I found remarkable about this book was the degree to which Bear took on the typical subject matter of a Michael Crichton novel and wrote a novel that's Crichton's polar opposite. There's the same near-future scientific development, similar tension, and the same mix of science and human peril, but where Crichton writes anti-science horror Bear writes science fiction. Crichton treats science as an artificial invention of man unleashing nightmares on the world that have to then be controlled, buried, and forgotten. Bear shows nature as strange and adaptable, humans looking to science to protect them from nature, and scientists trying to use science to understand what's truly happening and accept new knowledge. Crichton's novels are about forbidden and dangerous knowledge, Lovecraftian in their portrayal of science as insanity that humans must step back from. Bear turns this on its head and shows people trying to understand and cope with staggering change. To anyone who doesn't understand why Crichton's novels are essentially anti-science-fiction, I recommend reading this book immediately afterwards and studying the contrast.

While the handling of science and research is excellent (down to the politics and the way choices are made between multiple possible interpretations), Bear stumbles a bit more on the human angle. I liked the political infighting about what to do about SHEVA once public panic started, but the portrayal of public panic itself left a lot to be desired. The panic makes sense. The virus messes with human reproduction, naturally a hot button. But Bear never shows any of the thought behind the protesting groups, never shows their preparation or literature, and keeps his viewpoint characters entirely in the dark about how people are organizing. As a result, the protests, riots, and reaction feels strange, uncontrolled, wild, and more dangerous than the disease. (It doesn't help that much of it is off-camera.)

This comparison and contrast between the mysterious virus and the mysterious mob reaction serves some thematic purpose in the book, but felt artificial. It's an effect constructed by keeping the reader ignorant of things that would have been easily found, such as public statements of rabble-rousers or organizing speeches of protest groups. Instead, protesters are almost always eerily silent and eerily well-organized. The rest of humanity is even more incomprehensible to the viewpoint characters than the virus is. Given how central the human reaction it is, I wanted Bear to set it up better. He already brought abortion into the story in a very realistic and nicely handled complication, and more portrayal of the other side (a viewpoint character among the protesters, for instance) would have tied it all together. (Although, given the politics involved, I found it odd that Mexico and Central and South America disappeared from the political landscape. The US is not where I think the opposite polar extreme from Asia in handling of SHEVA-created pregnancies would form.)

The best part of this book is the last 200 pages. Like many thrillers I've read, it has a slow start, and near the middle Bear throws in a love triangle to further complicate life that I found unnecessary and bolted on. I think there was enough suspense and character conflict without unnecessarily falling back on some romantic stereotypes. Bear could have trimmed the start of the book and the romance angle to provide space for another viewpoint on public reaction to the virus. I'm also not sure what to think of the choice of infecting one of the viewpoint scientists rather than using a separate character to follow the action of the virus from the inside. It provides some opportunities to contrast human reactions with scientific reactions, and Bear handles this well, but Kaye ends up remarkably central to everything that's happening in every possible way. At times that felt odd, even though it's defensible given the nature of the virus.

The ending was a bit sappy and roughly what I'd been expecting, but I was surprised by how much I liked it and how much Bear still embedded plausible biological projections in it. It's more of a sequel setup than a pure ending, but it was still satisfying.

Bear's scientific subject matter isn't entirely to my taste, but I enjoyed his portrayal of the political fight and the way science is limited and twisted by the strictures of political need, public opinion, and public acceptance. The book is not without its flaws, but cautiously recommended if the mix of science fiction and thriller sounds interesting.

Followed by Darwin's Children.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-01-20

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