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DARWIN'S RADIO

By Andrew Osmond     May 29, 2001

Darwin's Radio, now available in paperback, is what the book itself calls an 'outbreak novel.' Set in the present day, Bear's story postulates a newor as it turns out, ancientvirus named Herod's flu, which sweeps America, causing thousands of women to miscarry. But that's only the start. Victims then 'spontaneously' become pregnant again, with embryos that are chromosomally abnormal. Meanwhile, in a frozen mountain cave, a disgraced paleontologist finds seeming proof of a leap in evolution. Does Herod's flu spell the end for mankind, or a new beginning?

By now, readers will be thinking this sounds familiar, and author Greg Bear acknowledges the book's lineage. One character confronts the heroine with the sarcastic comment, 'The new babies are all going to be big-headed superhumans...they'll kill us all and take the Earth.' However, Darwin's Radio is not really a successor to X-Men or Midwich Cuckoos. Rather it follows in a tradition of hard-SF about everyday science. Despite the précis, the book is not so much about scientific breakthroughs as it is about the profession's frustrations, feuds and petty politics, both on commercial and government levels. (Another specialist in this sub-genre is Bear's namesake Gregory Benford.) One intriguing sub-plot, for example, has the Surgeon General's staff debating how to 'spin' the disease to get adequate Congress funds. It sounds very convincing.

By and large, it's a compelling book. The main characters are well defined and sympathetic, and I had no idea who would end up with whom in the emerging love-triangle. The science lessons are dropped in fairly painlessly; indeed, a big appeal of this sub-genre is that it teaches one a great deal of cutting-edge theory. Be warned, however; while the New Scientist blurb on my edition describes the book as a 'technothriller' and promises 'riots, flights to the hills and death cults,' it isn't that kind of book. We're always aware of the national trauma caused by Herod's fluagain, very convincingand we catch disturbing glimpses of mob rule and human ugliness, though Bear never descends to misanthropy. But there are no grand multi-viewpoint set-pieces that read like they've been written for a blockbuster script. If you want that, stick with Michael Crichton.

Quibbles are few. The two main characters have a generally touching, believable relationship, but their dialogue occasionally slips into hokiness. Similarly, while Bear's scenario is convincing, there are a couple of tenuous elements. Isn't it convenient that two world-changing discoveries are made simultaneously? And why, given what we eventually find about Herod's flu, should the epidemic strike now, rather than in past decades or centuries? Bear has a page about the millennial malaise of 'too much bandwidth' and 'endless nasty competition' but it seems thin and parochial. The other quibble is with the end (no spoilers). Given the focus on questions rather than answers, it would have been more satisfying to stop in the middle of Chapter 87, interesting though later details are. Or are they the trailer for a sequel?

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