Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear follows several characters — a molecular biologist, an archaeologist, and a public policy maker — through a cataclysmic pandemic sweeping through the human race. This disease is an HERV, a human endogenous retrovirus, which is a piece of dormant genetic code that, when activated, only affects sexually-active women. It causes them to get pregnant with a horribly-mutated fetus that self-aborts, only to follow up with another pregnancy of a new species of human, homo novus.
I found Bear’s description of homo novus a fascinating suggestion of ways in which our species might evolve. He envisions humans evolving new physical structures. These structures —glands, concentrations of photo-sensitive skin cells, etc. —create new ways of communicating and relating between members of the species. This description was so much more interesting than your stereotypical idea of future humans as large-eyed, smooth-skinned hominid with a predominant forehead, which is basically a 50’s Martian, or Pratchett and Baxter’s prediction of “the Next,” with their snotty, amoral attitudes.
The plot of Darwin’s Radio was layered and complex, bringing in political, historical, and personal storylines. It begins with the discovery of two preserved Neanderthals murder victims somewhere in the Alps; their corpses provide a historical rubric for how human evolution will provoke suspicion, fear, and violence. The plot establishes that these corpses, along with many other mass murder victims (usually women and children) over the centuries, have been afflicted with the HERV in question, ostracized from their societies, and killed in an effort to root out the mutation. However, in the present day, the HERV has become an epidemic, spreading over continents. In response, governments hide, then study, then contain the spread of the HERV virus, while health organizations lobby, scrambling to understand what is the best course of action lobby.
The personal storyline follows a molecular biologist, Kaye Lang, and her archaeologist lover, Mitch. They meet and fall in love in the middle of the chaos caused by the virus. Kaye is also pursued by Christopher Dicken, a nebbish public policy lobbyist, but she chooses Mitch because, [spoiler: highlight if you want to read it] in the wake of the HERV virus, she responds very strongly to her hormones, specifically her sense of smell, which drive her into his masculine arms. (Also, he can wear the hell out of a pair of jeans.) In addition to each being directly connected to the study, past-and-present, of the disease, Kaye and Mitch also end up conceiving and delivering one of the first of the new, evolved human beings.[end spoiler]
While Bear did provide a primer of scientific terms and background, I found the in-text explanations not very reader-friendly. They were dry, complicated, and revolved around technical terms. This is probably fine for many hard SF readers. I’m exposing my own weakness as a reader here when I say I prefer explanations more like Madeleine L’Engle‘s of a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, or Michael Crichton‘s of black holes and the space-time continuum in Sphere. To many people, those books are SF-lite, and I get that. However, their explanations use metaphor, connecting the concept to something that I was already familiar with so that I could visualize it more easily. In Darwin’s Radio, Kaye Lang’s explanations of how the HERV worked generally sounded like a scientist talking to someone in her own field.
In addition to the lackluster scientific explanations, I felt that Bear’s writing in general was wooden. Despite finding their predicament compelling, I couldn’t relate to the characters. I didn’t understand why they made certain choices. “Because hormones” is a perfectly understandable reason to sleep with someone. But it didn’t seem like a good enough reason for Kaye, a scientist, to abandon her career and conceive a potentially life-threatening child with Mitch, a man she barely knew, no matter how good his ass looks in Levis. Perhaps this was supposed to be indicative of how coercive the HERV virus was; it could literally re-write DNA, so why couldn’t it make people act in uncharacteristic ways? But the characters’ dialogue also seemed unmotivated, their interior lives empty of some spark. As a writer, I would find this criticism very frustrating because it’s so instinctual and unfocused. As a reviewer, I find it frustrating to give this criticism. But, while I’ve tried to think about why I feel this way, I can’t point to any particular moment in the writing where I would change something to fix these problems — it’s just that, as a whole, it fell flat.