Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Darwin’s Radio

Greg Bear
Completed 5/20/2020, Reviewed 5/20/2020
3 stars

This book was quite a mixed bag.  It’s very hard science.  There’s also a lot of politics.  And it reads like a best seller science thriller, almost like a cross between Michael Crichton and James Patterson.  I didn’t care for the first three hundred fifty pages.  There were several times I wanted to put the book down, but I was reading this for my book club in exile, so I plowed through.  Fortunately, the last hundred fifty pages were much better.  There was less science and more thriller.  And I finally began to care about the main characters.  The premise is good: a pandemic which activates genes causing the next phase of human evolution.  I just didn’t think the book lived up to all the hype I had heard.  It was nominated for a bunch of awards, winning the Nebula in 2000.

Mitch Rafelson, an archeologist with a bad reputation, discovers three ice mummies in the Alps.  There’s something about them that makes them seem to be Neandertals.  Back in the states, strange pregnancies are beginning to occur.  First, a woman is pregnant, then miscarries, then is immediately pregnant again, but the baby dies at birth, usually with severe deformities.  Kaye Lang, a brilliant biologist, starts making a connection between the births and a virus and genetic mutation.  She is asked to join a Taskforce to study the issue before the phenomenon becomes a pandemic.  In the meantime, Mitch is developing his own theories, based on research he’s gotten from the University at Innsbruck in Austria, the group who confiscated the mummies.  He has dreams of the lives of his mummies, which is how he pieces together his theories of what happened to them.

Then, the pandemic happens, panic ensues, and the government struggles to deal with it.  People grab for power and politics often wins over science.  Amidst all this chaos, Kaye and Mitch do their best to stay true to their selves and their theories, eventually working together to come up with an explanation of what’s really going on.

The plot is pretty decent, but in those first three hundred fifty pages, I often lost sight of it because of all the hard biology.  Bear is known as a master of hard science fiction.  I would even say that the book satisfies a parochial definition of the science fiction, i.e. fiction with real science.  There’s just so much of it, though.  I often found my head swimming trying to understand it all.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if it was written by someone else, someone who could have softened it enough for the layperson to follow better.

 I also found the politics very hard to follow.  There are a lot of characters introduced in the political arena, and I found it hard to remember who each person was and what they were doing.  They added to my trouble keeping the plot straight in my head.  Fortunately, the major players in the politics are a little less than three dimensional, being narcissistic and power-driven, and it became easier to remember who they were, while the lesser characters simply settled into a tangled mess in my head known as “other”.

The main characters, Mitch and Kaye, were both written pretty well.  However, I felt even they didn’t get good development until the last third of the book.  Sure, they were featured often and had extensive back stories, but I didn’t really begin to care about them until that last third. 

The writing is decent as well.  It reminded me a lot of the bestsellers I was reading in the ‘90s, with almost a journalistic approach.  There’s prose, but it’s very cold.  At times, I felt like it wasn’t even necessary, that the book would have been better off being sparser in its descriptions of the environment and the people. 

I was going to give this book two stars, but my enjoyment of the last third kicked it up to three stars out of five.  If you like hard science or are a microbiologist, this book is for you.  As a layperson, I found it tough going.  However, I have a feeling that when my book club in exile meets virtually next month, there will be a lot of people who disagree with me. 

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