Evolution: A Novel
(Gollancz, 585 pages. Trade paperback, £12.99; hardback £18.99; published
21 November 2002. Gollancz, 760 pages, £6.99, mass market paperback,
29 August 2003.)
Clocking in at 584 pages, this novel takes us from the age of the dinosaurs
to the Earth's far future through around twenty vignettes of life on
our planet. Crammed with detail, huge in vision, it will certainly appeal
to the New Scientist reader and to the millions who have enjoyed the
recent BBC series about dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.
However well-researched and detailed, I confess it didn't leave me
completely satisfied. The supposed link between the individual chapters
is that this is the story of one single strand of DNA, which at one
point is encoded in the cells of the palaeontologist Joan Useb in the
framing narrative, set in 2031. Well, it clearly isn't so. There's no
way she could be descended from Jurassic tool-using dinosaurs, from
the first New World monkeys, or from the exotic Antarctic fauna of the
Pleistocene; and while she could well be descended from several of the
human era characters, there are pretty strong indications that she is
not an ancestor of the post-humans in the later chapters.
Shorn of its central conceit, the book becomes mostly a series of speculative
essays about the past or future. The author says firmly that this novel
is "not intended to be a textbook" -- it might have been better
if it were, as we would have some basis for judging which of the many
authorial asides are daring speculation as opposed to conventional wisdom.
I would also have liked some maps of the drifting continents, and indeed
some pictures of the various creatures; my visual imagination is not
strong enough to reconstruct them to my own satisfaction from the author's
description, especially when some chapters, particularly those set in
the unfashionable Cenozoic Era, seemed to have a dozen new species in
the first few pages. The cover image combining globe with outline hominid
skull is striking, beautiful even, but uninformative.
The first section of the book, beginning with the cometary impact that
killed the dinosaurs, faces the problem that, without anthropomorphising
inappropriately, it is difficult to get readers to identify with non-human
and non-intelligent characters. Instead the protagonists are subjected
to ecological disasters of various natures which they survive, or don't
as the case may be. Rather too often we get editorialising on the lines
of "little did they know how significant this would be..."
A lot of the "viewpoint" characters are female, but it seems
that only the males have orgasms, a trend that continues throughout
The central set of chapters, set in the human era, links a diverse
set of stories of the development of culture and technology through
a supposed common biological lineage demonstrated by the names Ja-ahn,
Ejan, Jana, Jo-on, Jahna, Juna and presumably also Joan Useb over a
period of tens of thousands of years. Apart from the geographical improbability
of a single line of descent through all the chapters, I have a somewhat
technical linguistic gripe: the sound often spelt "J" in English
is one of the most mutable of phonemes, and I'd be surprised to learn
of any examples of a language where we know it to have been stable even
over a single millennium.
Apart from that, the human chapters are the best-written. Baxter's
vision of the future post-2031 is pessimistic and bleak, with one superbly
grim episode where a British military cell emerges after a hibernation
which they thought would be only for a few decades to find the world
changed beyond recognition. In the end, rather than our biological descendants,
the real heirs of humanity seem to be robotic interplanetary explorers,
and I'd have liked to read a bit more about them.
Evolution aims to be a darker version of a history of the world
a la Wells, Shaw, Stapledon, and so on. This kind of thing has been
done much better before, including by Baxter himself in The Time
Ships, his superb homage to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.
The value added here is Baxter's extensive research into current biology
which basically gives the book its interest. But, as with much hard
sf, I am left dubious about whether the book's scientific accuracy contributes
anything to its value as a work of literature.
Review by Nicholas Whyte.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: