Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear
Posted July 3, 2016on:
where I got it: purchased used
I talked about this book a little while ago, about how it worked so damn well. I finished the novel shortly after posting that blog post, it just took me forever to write the actual review!
Pregnant women are losing their babies. All across the globe, women are miscarrying at staggering rates, some so early in their pregnancies they didn’t even know they were expecting. When I first read the back cover of Darwin’s Radio, my first thought was “terrible pregnancies? Is this a book about something like Zika?” Of course it isn’t. Darwin’s Radio was written in 1999, and it won the 2000 Nebula and Endeavor awards.
At first, it’s assumed it’s a virus of some sort that is causing the miscarriages. CDC Investigator Christopher Dicken is used to travelling the globe, seeing the worst viruses in action. But this doesn’t act like any virus he’s ever seen. Meanwhile, molecular biologist Kaye Lang has published a handful of papers on ancient retroviruses found in the human genome, papers that push her to the fringe of academia. Not exactly viruses, these are genetic markers that go into action when triggered. But triggered to do what? And triggered by what? At the same time, discredited archaeologist Mitch Rafelson has been doing his own secret research, except he doesn’t yet understand what he sees in the mummies in an ice cave.
When Lang is brought in to consult on a mass grave, the wheels start turning in her head, because what she’s seeing doesn’t make sense. Why would a village murder the pregnant wives? And why did the same thing happen 40 years ago? And why are there current reports of mass violence against pregnant women and women who recently miscarriage? This is not how civilized modern civilization acts!
This isn’t a super fast paced book, or an action thriller, but the speed and intensity comes into play with how fast their ideas and theories take shape, and how fast that information can be shared with others who can put it to good use. Bear fully fleshes out the three main characters Kaye, Christopher, and Mitch, introducing other supportive characters as needed, and educates the reader about genetics and biology through conversation between characters instead of through infodumping. Bear writes in a way that makes complicated science and biology accessible to any reader. You can go into this book with zero knowledge of genetics, biology, and how diseases work, and come out of it with just enough knowledge to be a bit dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, this is a science heavy, hard science fiction thriller. But Bear also subtly deals with grief, scientific academia, mob mentalities, and what we talk about when we talk about evolution.
Not only is this a compelling read, Darwin’s Radio is a fantastic observation on the study of evolution, and on how we study and accept scientific thought in general. We know the basics about how humans evolved, right? Well, not exactly. We know the basics, but we don’t know the exact how’s, what’s or when’s. Did human evolution occur at a steady pace, or in spurts and starts? And if it occurred in spurts, what triggered those changes? Nature might not care about children being born different, but tribes and cultures sure do. What was that mother doing during pregnancy, for her child to be born so weird? Through Mitch, we get a viewpoint of how ancient humans dealt with this retrovirus. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as ancient humans probably reacted to these evolutionary changes the same way modern people do: with fear.
Because this evolutionary retrovirus? It is weird and disturbing as hell. I’d give you the gruesome (yet medically really cool! But still gross!) details, but it’s much better the way Bear presents it. Those mass graves? Suddenly much more horrifying.
About half way through the book, I thought to myself “sure would be convenient if Kaye got pregnant”, and a few chapters later, she did. There is a bit of a love triangle happening between Kaye, Mitch, and Christopher, so at first I was worried her pregnancy and the romance was a plot device. But, as a biologist with an understanding of how retroviruses work, isn’t she the ideal study subject? Her pregnancy is actually the most important thing that happens in this book, and as her pregnancy progresses, she and Mitch go through their own evolutionary changes. But what are they changing into? What is the point of what is happening? With Kaye and Mitch off the grid and in hiding, the pacing of the novel slows down, but still stays compelling and interesting. Not a spoiler, but Kaye eventually gives birth to a healthy baby girl.
There is a scene shortly after her baby is born that had me nearly shitting my pants. Something happens, and I read that line and that scene over and over, because I could not believe what I was reading. It was the point of everything that happened, it was a moment that encapsulates everything humanity fears. Nature didn’t fear this moment, and we shouldn’t either.
The copy of Darwin’s Radio that I bought has a short interview with Greg Bear in the back. In the interview, he mentions this book is a metaphor for what every first-time parent goes through – will my child be healthy? Will my child be safe? What if i can’t connect with my child? Will I be a good enough parent? What happens when my child surpasses me?
What happens when all of our children surpass us? Nature might be ready, but are we?