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.