Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Darwin's Radio hardback cover art Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

Del Rey science fiction - copyright 1999
418 pages

Book read in November 1999
Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

Darwin's Radio won the 2000 Nebula Award for best novel

       Darwin's Radio starts out as a standard present-day biological thriller, but quickly gets embroiled in sophisticated evolutionary theory.  The focus on evolution is nicely topical, since the novel was released shortly after the dimwits on the Kansas School Board brought the old evolution-creation debate back into the public eye.

       The book centers on biologist Kaye Lang and anthropologist Mitch Rafelson.  In the opening scene in the Alps, Rafelson discovers the mummified remains of a prehistoric family in which the child appears strangely different from its parents.  Meanwhile, Lang has been developing a theory of how retroviruses embedded in human DNA might become active and contagious.  The government enlists her help when her theory is confirmed; an endogenous retrovirus has awoken.  The virus, dubbed Herod's flu, triggers miscarriages among women, and is spreading so quickly it threatens to wipe out an entire generation.

       As research progresses, Lang soon begins to suspect that the virus is more than just a disease, but somehow is part of the evolutionary process.  The government agencies battling Herod's flu resist any such suggestions, in large part because Lang's ideas might jeopardize the agencies' funding.  Lang and Rafelson determine to uncover the truth without help from the government.

       I was fascinated with the premise of this novel.  A sudden advance in human evolution is hardly a new idea in science fiction, having been explored in such established classics as A.E. van Vogt's Slan and Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, but never before has the notion seemed so plausible.  Without lecturing (except in the biological primer appended to the text), Greg Bear leaves little doubt that his speculations are grounded in extensive research into cutting edge biological science.  He handles the confusion, fear, and prejudice that would result from such a sudden evolutionary advance quite skillfully, although he leaves the ultimate outcome for a sequel.

       I enjoyed Bear's writing style in Darwin's Radio more than in any of his other works that I've read.  The characterization in particular is strong.  Everyone in the book has a blend of good points and shortcomings.  Even the villains, such as the character Augustine, are not evil, but simply caught up too fully in playing politics rather than trying to do the right thing.  I found the myopic politics of Bear's bureaucrats sometimes funny and sometimes frighteningly believable.

       My only minor nit-pick is that Bear took too long to get into the impact on society of Herod's flu.  The first half of the book focuses on scientists in their labs, and we don't see how ordinary people's lives are being affected by the epidemic.  We are told that people are rioting, but we're not sure exactly why.  Thankfully, Lang and Rafelson do come into contact with a wider range of characters later in the novel.  By the end of the book I was quite satisfied with how the story played out, and eager to get my hands on the sequel.
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Copyright 1999 Aaron Hughes

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Our book club's web pages for Greg Bear books (includes Bear bibliography):
Darwin's Radio

Links to other Greg Bear reviews, articles, and websites:
Greg Bear: The Official Site
Greg Bear - Wikipedia
Greg Bear Darwin's Radio - an infinity plus review
Fiction Factor - Review of Darwin's Radio Darwin's Radio -- Greg Bear

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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