SF Academy 06 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

As I’ve discussed here previously, I believe some science fiction writers are more about the “big idea,” the concept that would be just as interesting in summary as in story form, and others are more about story and character, narration and philosophy, that is to say, the writing. My favorite science fiction writers are good at both, and one of my overall favorites is Greg Bear. His work can be uneven (avoid Dead Lines for example, which can’t decide whether it’s a ghost story of a muddled, supernatural-tinged attempt at sci-fi), but when it’s good, it’s really good. My favorites of his books include Blood Music (which seems to be out of print in the US, which is strange), and Moving Mars (which won Bear his first Nebula for Best Novel). I’ve been working my way gradually through his bibliography.

Darwin’s Radio came out in 1999 and won Bear the Nebula award. The book develops at a modest pace, with the discovery of mummified human remains which may suggest something unusual about human evolution. Coincidental to the very old remains being found, a virus that infects these mummies also begins to manifest itself among modern humans.

Bear’s strength is believable characters (especially scientists) and relationships that seem real, and run the gamut from love affairs to career betrayals. He’s also one of the few SF authors that attempts to write fairly explicit sex scenes in style that’s serious and unexaggerated.

By the end, Darwin’s Radio ends up being about a strange genetic trick that combines qualities of a pathogenic virus, and a mechanism for triggering a new stage in human evolution. The great majority of the book, though, is spent on political wrangling, and the formation and breaking-up of alliances between major characters including scientists, archologists, and political functionaries at the Centers for Disease Control.

The scientific ideas under exploration here are fascinating, but the book is much more about the struggle to understand, and scientific detective work thwarted by the need to compromise, all aspects of the process. The ending builds slowly but once crucial events occur the conclusion happens too quickly. Given that Bear wrote a sequel,
Darwin’s Children, I had to wonder whether he said to himself “Shit, this one’s getting way too long… better chop it off here, and finish it up in a sequel.” Then I looked up the sequel’s publication date and saw that it came 5 years later, so maybe not.

Maybe I’m the only one, but by the time the epilogue arrived, I thought we were just getting to the meat of the action. I’d recommend this one, but with reservations, and I wonder how I’ll feel after I read the sequel, which was not as well-reviewed as this book.

Overall, not dissatisfying exactly, but imperfect. At times, Greg Bear writes science fiction as well as anyone alive, and I’ll continue taking a chance on his books so long as there are more like this Blood Music or this one (successful, or almost), and not too many like Dead Lines.

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