Darwin’s Radio – Greg Bear (1999)
‘Darwin’s Radio: the missing link thriller
The discovery of a mass grave of mutated villagers in the Caucusus; a mummified prehistoric family revealed by ice-thaw high in the Alps; a mysterious new disease that strikes only pregnant women, resulting in miscarriage – three disparate facts that will converge into one science-shattering truth.
So-called junk genes that have slept in our DNA for millions of years are waking up; the women who miscarry become spontaneously pregnant again without sexual activity.
The new babies are not normal.
Governments exact emergency measures: segregation of the sexes, abortion of all foetuses. Only three scientists in the world believe it isn’t a plague: famous biologist Kaye Lang, disgraced palaeontologist Mitch Rafelson and the government’s ‘virus hunter’ Christopher Dicken. Can their leap of faith overcome mass panic and superstition?’
Blurb to the 2000 harpercollins paperback edition.
The subject of Homo Superior or indeed Human Evolution has been a rare theme in SF of late, but Bear has taken the concept and reinvented it anew in an ingenious and compelling novel.
Bear is an established writer of Hard SF which I prefer to categorise better as Big Science. His work is always solidly based on extrapolation of real science and as such produces incredibly plausible works in which huge ideas are dealt with. More importantly Bear is always guaranteed to provide solid characters and societies which are impacted and changed by discoveries or events in a logical and realistic way.
Darwin’s Radio builds its premise around contemporary research on redundant genetic material in the human genome and on phages, beneficial viruses which can be employed in place of antibiotics to fight bacterial infection.
The central idea is that human DNA contains and ancient HERV (Human Endogenous Retrovirus) which is not only capable of converting the DNA within the ovaries of a human foetus, but also of infection throughout the human population.
Three people gradually come to the conclusion that SHEVA (as the virus is named) has been instrumental in leaps of human evolution and in particular, causing Neanderthal Man (or rather woman) to give birth to Homo Sapiens.
Bear makes this scenario horribly believable and concentrates on the frantic race for a vaccine while the world, experiencing an epidemic of miscarriages, erupts into chaos.
As is typical for Bear, politics on many levels provides a stumbling block toward common sense and the need to face the truth about the true nature of SHEVA.
The true horrors of the novel, such as the mob violence, the mass-killings of pregnant women and the outbreaks of religious fundamentalism and human sacrifice are for the most part kept in the background while Bear revels in his mastery of focusing on individual characters and through them disseminating the scientific research as it develops, hindered by the agendas of individuals and political systems and indeed by political divisions within the scientific community itself.
The ending is atypical of Bear, who previously tended to bring his novels to a grand climax such as in ‘Moving Mars’ where again, politics and science collide to produce a denouement where the planet Mars is transported across the galaxy to a new home.
The understated ending here is downbeat but optimistic, showing the new ‘Homo Sapiens Novus’ children either living in reservations or existing (like Van Vogt’s Slans) secretly within human communities.
Wisely perhaps, Bear only gives us fleeting glimpses of what these children may grow into. Equipped with organs capable of discharging a range of pheromones; chameleonesque colour changing facial skin cells and additional vocal skills, the super-children seem destined to be masters of communication and persuasion.
Skills, in fact, vital for survival in contemporary society.