Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Darwin's Children

Darwin's Radio is the second book by Greg Bear that I've read, The Forge of God being the first. I liked both as they are both good examples of my favorite type of sci-fi: near-future hard science fiction.

Set in the U.S. but with excursions to Europe, Darwin's Radio plays like a plague outbreak novel early on, not unlike The Hot Zone/Outbreak, and progresses to a more traditional science fiction later on.

The rapid spread of the endovirus SHEVA is seen as a typical, but deadly virus that seems to threaten a whole generation of newborns. The story is told through the actions of the scientists and researchers that would be involved in the containment of outbreaks. One of the primary scientists is an archaeologist who sees a link between a mummified family of neanderthals found in a cave in the mountains of Europe and the current "disease". Another is a research biologist who first sees that this may not actually be a disease but rather speciation ... the creation of a new species of human.

The reader can tell that Bear really researches his subject matter and if you are not careful, you can get buried by the minutiae of whatever he is writing about. In this case, evolutionary biology and infectious diseases. The premise is that evolution hasn't necessarily always been a gradual progression. In human history, and in current time in the case of this book, drastic changes have happened in as little as a single generation. It's a radical idea that has been realized in lesser species, but not in humans (as far as we know). That would explain some of those gaps in the fossil record.

Now Bear is not saying that this is really what can happen, and he goes out of his way in the afterward to explain that the biologists that he spoke to say as much. But he fills the story with enough details and plausible science, that the reader doesn't feel it is far-fetched. That suspension of disbelief is generally important for me and why I have always tended towards hard science fiction as opposed to fantasy. Explaining away things as "magic" can be a turn-off for me when reading fiction. Not always, however, as I obviously love Lord of the Rings and greatly enjoyed Harry Potter. But, in general, I like that foundation in science. Perhaps, it's the scientist/engineer educational background in me.

Darwin's Radio explores hot button topics of abortion, internment, the role of women and mothers in society, the government's role in outbreaks, religion and evolution, just to name a few. I like the book's exploration of how many different people (scientists, politicians, citizens) may do things that they feel are right but perhaps for the wrong reasons such as religion, fear, and intellectual pride.

Darwin's Radio won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo (sci-fi's most prestigious awards) in 2000. These accolades were well-deserved and I recommend this book. I own the book, but oddly enough, I read it electronically on my wife's Kindle. We've been checking out a lot of books through our local libraries' digital collections and I saw it listed there. Wanted to give her reader a test drive, I downloaded it. I have to say, despite still loving physical books, I thoroughly enjoy reading on the Kindle.

I also have this book's sequel, Darwin's Children, and will certainly read it soon while this one is still fresh in my memory.


CyberKitten said...

I remember reading this back in 2007 and found myself very disappointed by it. Although it was an interesting idea with some good characterisation I thought that the social and political fallout to be very unrealistic. Maybe it only felt that way from a European/British perspective? Maybe the US would have indeed reacted as the book portrayed.... It's an interesting thought.....

dbackdad said...

CK -- That's a valid criticism. The story did seem to make short shrift of the UK response.

It's hard to say what the exact fallout would be but there is historical precedent for a lot of the characterizations, especially in the US. America has not been afraid in the past to lock up people they perceived to be potential threats (Japanese-American internment camps of WWII).

The more debatable social responses would be the widespread murders of pregnant women. It's hard to believe that would happen in a civilized society, but who's to say as we've never faced such a widespread pandemic.

But all of that is part of the point - how would a civilized society react to a situation where an entire generation is potentially lost? And what effect would religion and anti-science sentiment have on that response?

CyberKitten said...

All very good questions - which goes right to the heart of why Science-Fiction is such a great read. What other kind of literature makes you think about all kinds of things so much...?

It's why I'm still an *avid* reader of SF after almost 40 years.

dbackdad said...

Well said. (30 or so years of sci-fi reading for me so far).

wunelle said...

I listened to the audiobook of this a few months back. SF is not my usual fare, but I found it engaging in a potboiler sort of way.

Currently listening to Neal Stephenson's Criptonomicon, which is touted as some kind of ultimate nerd book. At 34 discs and some 43 hours, it's incredibly ambitious. About half way thru now.

dbackdad said...

Stephenson is one of my favorite sci-fi authors (Snow Crash and Diamond Age are both very good). Cryptonomicon is indeed ambitious, spanning multiple eras and characters and somehow tying it all together. I'm starting Anathem right now.

Jewish Atheist said...

I liked Darwin's Radio more than most scifi books actually.

That suspension of disbelief is generally important for me and why I have always tended towards hard science fiction as opposed to fantasy.

Exactly! I am the same way. Do you have any other recommendations? (I loved The Diamond Age -- at least the first half -- but not the rest of the series.)

dbackdad said...

I've always been a fan of Larry Niven, though that's older stuff that you may have already read (Lucifer's Hammer, Mote in God's Eye, and his stuff with Jerry Pournelle).

More contemporary authors would include Bear. I'd recommend The Forge of God. Greg Egan's very good as well.

Stephenson, as we mentioned, is good. Take a stab at Cryptonomicom if you haven't already.

Probably my favorite right now is Iain Banks. I've read and loved The Algebraist and Consider Phlebas, though CK has read them all and could recommend others a little better than I.

And, of course, William Gibson. I've read everything he's written.

CK is much more prolific of a sci-fi reader and could give you many other good authors and books, I'm sure.

Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks! I actually haven't read any Niven, I'll check him out as well as the others.

CyberKitten said...

JA - Check out the Sci-Fi listing on my Blog. I'm sure there's something in there you might like.