by Greg Bear
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Greg Bear has a brilliant imagination, but for most of his books I've read it's the execution of the idea that is lacking. Darwin's Radio won the Nebula in 2000, as well as the Endeavour Award, which is given to a writer from the Pacific Northwest. It was also a finalist for Hugo, John W. Campbell Memorial, Locus, and Seiun awards. It was followed by a sequel four years later, but I think he should have tightened the narrative of this book and completed the story in one volume. Several times I got the impression he might have been paid by the word, since there is needless exposition, and repetition of plot points already fully established. The plot encompasses about a year and a half, but quite a bit of that could have been skipped over or streamlined. Also, nearly every character, no matter how minor, gets several sentences describing their appearance and wardrobe, for no needful reason other than padding the word count.
It is set in the early years of the 21st Century, although published in '99, before the completion of the Human Genome project. I'm sure Bear did sufficient research into biology and genetics, and the discussions of those topics are not overwhelming, nor boring. Supposedly there are random strings of 'junk' DNA, the functions of which are unknown. Some may have gone dormant because they were superceded by other chromosomal combinations through evolution. What happens when dormant DNA becomes active again? The what is adequately explained, but not the how or why. The assumption is that societal stress is the cause, but that ignores the fact there has probably never been a time in human history that was not stressful for one group or another. If it's happening in the 2000s, did it happen at previous times, and if so, are there connections as to the cause? Bear links his current crisis to the rise of homo sapiens over homo neanderthalensis, as well as to other isolated events during the 20th Century. If it was stressful enough to have occurred in the Cacausus shortly after WW2, and in the early '90s during the Georgian Civil War, why not in the '30s during Stalin's Great Purge, or during or after WW1, or the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam? How about every other war ever fought, or times of famine?
Since the tagline for the book is "In the next stage of evolution, humans are history," it's not really a spoiler to report the reactivated DNA causes a chromosomal anomaly in new fetuses, the majority of which do not develop to full term. What is even more baffling is that the women become pregnant again within just a few weeks, and most say that's impossible since they hadn't had sex during that time. If you can buy the premise of the original fetus developing its own ovaries quickly and secreting another egg, which is the genesis of the secondary fetus, you might find it fascinating enough to continue. For me, the logic breaks down when the description of the Neanderthal parents (found mummified in a cave in the Alps) is similar to physical changes in modern human parents of the new generation. The end of the book is actually an anti-climax, essentially just a set-up for the sequel, a sequel that will feature "magical" children. I do have Darwin's Children, but due to my disappoinment with Radio, it won't be on my To Be Read pile any time soon.
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