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Evolution: A Novel

by Stephen Baxter

(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 cover scanthoughtful 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 book.

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.

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