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Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
(HarperCollins, £16.99, hardback, 440 pages; published 1999.)

Despite the fact that he has been an established SF writer for twenty years--and that this is his twentieth novel--Greg Bear remains restlessly unpredictable. He certainly displays continuities of theme and technique, consistently addressing subjects such as the stresses of political governance, and the mixture of exhilaration and danger entailed by scientific discovery; but the form of a new book by Bear is always a surprise. This is a source of both profit and danger.

The profit is sometimes commercial: Bear will choose a Very Popular Narrative Formula (as in Darwin's Radio) and, using it, craft a superior bestseller (ditto). Sales are generally good; the marketing logic is sound. Aesthetic profit accrues: the Very Popular Narrative Formula achieves originality and vitality for a change (as in Darwin's Radio). But the danger always lurks that a) the Formula's derivative nature will corruptingly show through (as occasionally but necessarily in Darwin's Radio) or that b) Bear's renovatory zeal will lead him down a bold but barren creative path (not at all the case in Darwin's Radio).

These perils have loomed quite prominently of late: Bear's two novels published in 1998, Dinosaur Summer and Foundation and Chaos, were both inherently conservative ventures, loose pastiches of Conan Doyle and Asimov, inexorably governed by Formula even as exuberance manfully showed through. And Slant (1997) played the creative card too rashly: it depicted a high-tech future in terms of neologisms (tedious and sickly, and second-hand from Bear's Queen of Angels, 1990) and moronic popular culture (best not contemplated), including lots of pornography. In addition, Bear built into Slant's structure the point that the book's central conspiracy, one by ultra-wealthy WASPs to sabotage the new world order and outlive the chaos of breakdown by sleeping through it in giant pyramids, was too risible to be anything more than a temporary nuisance. It was innovative to build bathos into Slant's plot, but it made the book a trifle soggy. Fortunately, as parenthetically intimated above, Darwin's Radio is a very different matter.

This time, Bear has selected the formula of the near-future biological thriller, combining concerns he last intensively treated long ago, in Blood Music (1985) (biology) and The Forge of God (1987) (the near-future thriller). The conventional elements are all present: a pandemic plague with a threatening acronym; massive but panic-stricken countermeasures by governments and corporations (employing bureaucratic--and thus also threatening--acronyms); halls-of-power skulduggery by the folk behind the acronyms; much social dislocation, including just-plain-dumb meddling in public health policy by anti-abortion Christian fundamentalist politicians and televangelists; and feisty, sexy (well, sometimes sexy) loner scientists and investigators who uncover the Truth while everyone else thrashes helplessly (but threateningly) about. The book will certainly sell; but Bear brings to this material great discipline, great intelligence, and great good humor. This sort of thriller has rarely been done this well; and in the end, Darwin's Radio very deftly transcends formula, as it renders the menacing Other of plague into the potentials of evolution.

The underlying story of Darwin's Radio is that of paranoia becoming acceptance. The three protagonists are all as the novel begins engaged in separate quests for understanding that turn up alarming indicators. Mitch Rafelson, a principled anthropologist gone rogue from his profession, is guided to an Alpine cave containing mummified Neanderthals--an adult couple--and a likewise preserved infant that is of our species yet somehow also the couple's child. Christopher Dicken, an investigator for the health authorities in America, finds evidence of the brutal slaying of apparent "plague" victims in the countries around the Black Sea. Kaye Lang, a brilliant biologist who does groundbreaking research while helping lead her husband's biotech company, has already detected signs that ancient retroviruses encoded in the human genome may resume their active state. It is almost as if these strangely related discoveries spontaneously combine into the critical mass required for a global crisis. An archaic retrovirus (known as SHEVA) emerges suddenly and devastatingly in America; it is the same plague that occasioned the preventive massacres Dicken (and Kaye) uncovered in the old USSR; and it apparently broke out in prehistory also, explaining the fate of Mitch's Neanderthals. Paranoia becomes abundant.

But even while the obligatory tale of botched cures, desperate quarantines, and political crises is very competently unfolded, the three pioneers begin to compare notes. The SHEVA plague infects women via their sexual partners, and aborts their babies. This is terrifying; but need it be a plague at all? Could it not rather be a process of accelerated evolution, the Wizard in our genome struggling, at first unsuccessfully, to generate a variant on the human species better equipped to survive the Twenty First Century than the present angst-overwhelmed and cognitively confused version? (Qualities very liberally illustrated in the text.) Among the few, an awareness grows of the evolutionary promise of SHEVA, and as they separate themselves from an establishment grown hysterical, and take courageous heretical steps on their own, that promise starts to become concrete. Paranoia yields to expectation; the exhilarating vistas of change familiar from earlier Bear novels begin to beckon, in closing chapters of extraordinary sustained tension.

The drab thriller is made over. This is surely Bear's intention: he so acutely contrasts these passages of emergent wonder (the wonder endemic to good SF) with the turgid, befuddled, paranoid-bureaucratic mentality of the thriller genre he ostentatiously apes for so much of Darwin's Radio. The resulting sensation is one of liberation; the sequel (to be titled Darwin's Children) can only be even better.

Review by Nick Gevers.
This review was originally published in Nova Express, Volume 5 Number 2: Fall / Winter 1999
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 29 January 2000