Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –
I really enjoy Greg Bear’s books. His writing is straightforward and his ideas are original and satisfyingly weird. He’s like the Stephen King of sci-fi. This particular book isn’t overwhelming, but it does have a Bear-ishly unique plot and is fun to read.
Since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, there has been a debate over the extent to which evolution happens gradually and the extent to which it is punctuated by relatively sudden leaps. In Darwin’s Radio, not only does evolution occur in sudden leaps, but the leaps can be very dramatic, with an entire species reaching a new stage of biological development within a generation or two.
This includes humans.
The book begins with the discovery of the frozen, mummified remains of a prehistoric family – a man, a woman, and a baby – in the Alps. At first, the paleontologist who discovers them thinks they are Neanderthals. But it turns out, upon further investigation, that the baby is Homo sapiens and that the adults were Neanderthals who appear to have physically changed into Homo sapiens shortly around the time their baby was born. It looks as if the parents literally shed their skin to reveal the new evolutionary form. It also looks like these three early humans were murdered.
(Note: I’m assuming that at the time this book was written the scientific consensus still was that Homo sapiens evolved from Neanderthals. In order to get into the story, you just have to go along with that.)
At the same time that all this prehistorical investigation is going on, something strange is happening to contemporary humans. A new flu-like retrovirus is spreading around the world. Men can be carriers but only women get infected. When a pregnant woman contracts the virus, it makes her abort the fetus. This is very upsetting, of course, and people start panicking. What it takes people a while to realize is that before the fetus aborts, it itself ovulates and leaves behind a new viable fetus… with six extra chromosomes than normal... that continues to develop.
And then, even weirder, when a man and a woman are about to have a baby from one of these new extra-chromosome fetuses, they both start to change physically. Their vocal chords and sense of smell get more sensitive and their facial skin starts peeling off, revealing new patches that change color with emotion.
A biological researcher investigating the retrovirus eventually hooks up with the paleontologist who found the mummies and they put two and two together. They develop the theory that a Homo sapiens gene existed all along in early hominids, in the form of a dormant retrovirus. At some point some kind of species-wide biological clock determined that it was time for the next evolutionary step and activated the virus in the Neanderthals. It caused them to have Homo sapiens babies and caused the parents to change form too, to match their children. Because they were different, these new-form humans were likely feared and persecuted and sometimes even murdered by their earlier-form relatives.
And this is also, of course, what is happening to modern humans. The biological master clock has activated another dormant part of our genetic code. When the first few extra-chromosome babies are born they, too, have sensory patches of color on their faces and they can communicate with their parents in an almost empathic or telepathic way. They are a new stage of human. And they, too, are feared and persecuted by regular old-style humans, and are forced to go into hiding from their families and neighbors and the government. (Setting us up nicely for a sequel, Darwin’s Children.)
My main problem with Darwin’s Radio was that I didn't really like the main characters very much - either the paleontologist or the biologist working on the retrovirus or the modern evolutionarily advanced families. They seemed more like tools for telling the story rather than real rounded personalities. Fortunately, however, the basic ideas were cool and well-developed enough to carry me through the book in spite of the people not being very appealing.
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