Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear, Read by George Guidal, Recorded Books LLC, 2000
It is rare to find a book of genre fiction (western, romance, sci-fi, and fantasy to name the biggest groups) in which characters feel very real and complex and the writing shines with a brilliant poesy. So much attention has to be paid to genre conventions and choosing to conform to them or subvert them, as well as to the creation of alternate worlds, mythologies, and technologies, that these two staples of fiction often get left by the wayside. The truly great writers who care about human beings first and foremost in their storytelling, yet manage to pen great works in those genres (McCarthy, Pullman, Vonnegut, L’Engle), manage the broadly appealing crossover novels that tempt readers to try more of that particular genre.
Greg Bear is a very good genre writer. What he does in his specific field of science fiction is very well thought out, very well researched, very accessible while still highly technical. Darwin’s Radio has a fascinating premise and is an exciting thriller centering on evolution which isn’t your usual topic for exhilarating novels. It is of the sub-genre of science fiction roughly categorized as near-future, the hallmark of which is a sudden development that completely changes or completely destroys life as we know it and is about to happen……now!
The problem is that Greg Bear isn’t going to be managing much crossover appeal at any point soon. Darwin’s Radio, while written by a clearly intelligent man, is also filled with scads of bad writing, with some easily predictable plot turns, one-dimensional characters, and with a few overly dramatic gestures substituted in place of thoughtful psychological analysis of behavior. When the stress of the global crisis gets to one male character, he patronizes a strip club, lunges out of his seat during a lap dance, and grabs hold of a stage poll and sobs. That little scene manages to compactly demonstrate three of four of those weaknesses in one go.
The novel starts with disgraced paleontologist Mitch Rafelson hiking up into the Alps where he discovers a frozen, well-preserved cave family. The only problem is that parents are both Neanderthals, while the infant is distinctly Homo sapiens. He narrowly escapes an avalanche, preventing him from marking the cave of discovery, when the novel cuts to the Republic of Georgia where genetic researcher Kaye Lange, a molecular biologist researching retroviruses, is doing some substitute work for the UN investigating a mass grave. If you think these two quick introductions will aim these characters to a bed before the book’s over, then you’ve figured out one of Bear’s late plot points within the first two chapters.
For strange biological necessities that escape my grasp, male science geeks like the author seem to never really get a grasp on women from junior high on (unlike, say, literature dudes who get all the ladies). The seduction scene between Mitch and Kaye is so badly drawn that one wonders if Bear’s ever been party to a seduction besides watching Cinemax after Dark. Once Bear has Kaye naked, she is described as having a “thickly flossed pubis” and “cherry pit nipples.” Ech. Neither of those descriptions does what I’m supposing they’re supposed to, which is make her seem sensually natural. Then consider this fine action, “Mitch withdrew and checked. The condom was still secure. He removed it and deftly tied it, dropped it over the side of the bed for disposal later.” Tied it? Deftly tied it? Who. The. Fuck. Does. That? In all my entire life I have never, for any reason, not even to make gag balloons, tied a knot in a condom, not even fresh out of the pack when you’d think you could manage it.
Anyway, the mass grave is recent, almost all the women in stages of pregnancy, the Georgians reacting to the outbreak of the new “disease” Herod’s Flu with reliable middle European overkill. The “flu” symptoms include automatic miscarriages and reimpregnation of the women in question, though there are reported spontaneous pregnancies by sexually active women not engaging in intercourse. By the book’s middle it is apparent to every reader, though of course not to the career politicos who make up the National Institute of Health, that this so-called epidemic is not, in fact, a disease, but is evolution expressing itself geometrically and not arithmetically. Information coded in DNA, previously considered redundancies, primitive characteristics evolved out of, and junk accumulation, have been combining through a key messenger signal of a “meta-genome” to prompt Homo sapiens sapiens to give birth to the species destined to make us extinct.
Sudden, worldwide miscarriages on the magnitude of millions cause a bit of social upheaval, but Bear cheats his way out of this by merely focussing it on urban areas like Washington D.C. where protests get out of hand. The various government people at the CDC are ghoulishly pleased when the syndrome first appears, believing that a good media-scare-disease can keep them in funding so they can continue to do good work on the myriad other diseases, but all their research is stymied at every turn. Evolution is too clever for them. Civil unrest spreads throughout the country as the government plans massive free distributions of RU-486 to abort the strange new fetuses developing after miscarriage, culminating in the somewhat implausible scenario of the governor of Alabama blowing himself up as a suicide bomber in the White House, assassinating the President. As things get worse and worse, the new president signs an order allowing for incarceration of infected mothers and seizure of “Herod’s Babies.” Internment camps are quite honestly considered. Pregnant women are required to register with the federal government. I won’t give away the surprises of the next generation of human beings that develop out of all this, and anyway, Bear has written them their own sequel, Darwin’s Children, needless to say, they’re better than we are.
It’s a fascinating premise, and Bear has the ability to make long passages of scientific explication interesting and readable, but since much of the book will deal with phages and retroviruses and the kind of specialty knowledge most readers don’t possess, there are several scenes of scientists explaining things to each other. Things they presumably should know, such as what common acronyms in their field stand for. And so we will get lengthy dialogues, done as brainstorming sessions, that educate the reader and get us up to speed on concepts like gradualism, punctuated equilibrium, single species climate adaptation, etc. There are the usual kind of hokey things that turn up in sci-fi types of books, like the “disease” has an acronym name that turns out to be SHEVA (like the Hindu goddess of destruction, get it, get it?). If you can get past that and the kind of beat-it-into-the-reader kind of scene setting, then Darwin’s Radio is a thriller that also makes you think and think hard.
Those familiar with the various evolutionary theories and scientists will find the name Darwin’s Radio an odd choice, as Darwin himself believed in gradualism, as do most evolutionary scientists. A more accurate title would be Gould’s Radio for Stephen Jay Gould (or Eldredge’s Radio, but he’s even less known) who posited the theory of punctuated equilibrium similar to elements in the book. Even more accurate would be to call it Saltation Radio, but that would make damn little sense and wouldn’t sell diddly. A character makes the comment that this new SHEVA business is “Darwin’s Radio” but then we get absolutely no follow up on that particular notion or even what it might mean in any sense. I suspect it’s merely marketing, because it’s piss-poor science.
George Guidall is an author I’ve become quite familiar with from listening to him read other books. He is well-paced, possessed of a decent baritone, gives each character just enough individuation to allow us to know who’s speaking in an unattributed conversation, and is easy on the ears. The pacing comes in especially handy during the lengthy scientist brainstorming sessions, helping us keep our phases separate form our phages. He can’t salvage Bear’s worse writing instincts, but he does what he can to move you through them painlessly.