Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear

Ballantine, 1999, 538 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-43524-9

At a time where reality is out-imagining science-fiction, is it any wonder if the line between the two is getting blurred? Michael Crichton has been making millions for decades by passing off a kind of science-fiction as something that could happen tomorrow. Isn’t it time for genre-grown SF authors to cash in on the mainstream moolah?

Surely Greg Bear’s reputation as a science-fiction author is unquestioned. While his novels have been hit-and-miss (Hit: Moving Mars. Miss: Dinosaur Summer. Your mileage will vary), it’s hard to say that the author of Blood Music is anything but a hard-core hard-SF writer. But even the paperback edition of Darwin’s Radio comes packaged as “Fiction” by generalist imprint Ballantine Books. It scrupulously avoids “Science-Fiction” on the cover and shyly mentions it once in the in-leaf blurbs. Bear isn’t the first one to leap from the SF ghetto to the bigger techno-thriller audience, but he’s not likely to be the last to annoy his core audience by doing so.

But enough fanboyish kvetching: what about the book? Here too, it’s impossible to avoid snarky comparisons to Crichton et al.: Darwin’s Radio begins sometime soon, with two separate discoveries that are obviously linked: a mass grave in Georgia and three Neanderthal-era bodies in the Austrian Alps. In the process, we’re introduced to the two main characters of the novel: biologist Kaye Lang and rogue academic Mitch Rafelson. In the accepted manner of such thrillers, clues accumulate, events start to snowball and pretty soon a horrible truth is uncovered: There is a virus out there which is doing very, very nasty stuff to expectant mothers. The end of the species may be in sight.

Now, before proceeding any further, let us highlight one very important thing: Science-fiction has not traditionally been very interested in the yucky stuff of procreation. Physics are fine insofar as they allow rockets and Big Dumb Object and space travel and rock-jawed starship captain heroes. But soft smelly biology, with its unreliable mechanisms and small-scale working, leads to the icky matters of reproduction, which in human terms leads to sex and emotions and relationships and uncomfortable things like that. I’ll come clean; as a science-fiction fan, I’m not alone in preferring the clean lines of a mile-long alien starship to the squishy stuff of pregnancies.

So when Bear uses Darwin’s Radio as an excuse to study the implications of a world-wide plague directly linked to reproduction, it’s difficult to remain unmoved and unconcerned. However bad the evening news are, they can’t touch the nightmare of widespread miscarriages, deformed babies and massive riots. It cuts close to the bone, and props have to be given to Bear for tackling such a subject.

Unfortunately, audacity isn’t enough: It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out that with two protagonists of reproductive age in a tale concerned with pregnancies, something will happen. It also doesn’t take much SF literacy to remember similar tales told with a much greater economy of means, in short stories less than a tenth of this length. Most of Darwin’s Radio is spent waiting for the next shoe to drop rather than more active plotting.

At least techno-geeks and bio-nerds will enjoy the technical details. There’s a lot of evolutionary speculations in the book, and while some of it is too scattered, it’s not a bad read. (Some questions seems to be purposefully left unsolved for the sequel, though.) This is where Bear’s background as a science-fiction writer resonates most clearly, through extensive jargon and reasonably convincing technical details.

As a science-fiction novel, it’s a bit basic. Hence my disapproval for Darwin’s Radio‘s Nebula Award for best Novel of 2000. It also, with hindsight, marks a turning point in Bear’s career, as his last three non-media novels (Including a sequel, Darwin’s Children) have also been in a techno-thrillerish vein. Good? Bad? If nothing else, Bear is hopefully getting filthy rich with Crichton’s target audience.

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