Security

Weekend reading: Darwin's Radio

Greg Bear's newest book is a biological detective story that somehow manages to make evolution thrilling. Thomas Pack reviews this prime candidate for some light weekend reading.


You've been staring at your monitor too long. Relax and curl up with a book unrelated to IT, end users, or networks. Weekend Reading has your review.


By Greg BearBallantine Publishing Group, 1999430 pp., hardcoverISBN: 0-345-42333-XPrice: $16.80 at fatbrain.com .



I would not have thought that a novel in which many of the characters spend most of their time discussing microbiology and anthropology could be suspenseful, thrilling, and even, at times, chilling. But that’s exactly what happens in Darwin’s Radio, the twenty-fourth book from Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Greg Bear.

His latest work is so powerful because he presents not only a biological detective story but also protagonists who struggle against both external and internal obstacles. For example, Kaye Lang is, in her own words, “an insecure female research scientist who wants to be kept out of all the dirty little details." She says, "now it’s time to be independent and make my own decisions. Time to grow up.”

Kaye knows she needs to grow up because she’s on the front lines of an international health crisis. She was one of the first researchers to recognize that ancient ailments encoded in human DNA can spring to life again, and now one such disease, nicknamed Herod’s Flu, has begun causing a large number of pregnant women to experience bizarre miscarriages that lead to spontaneous second pregnancies. It’s a disease no one in modern times has seen before—except maybe Mitch Rafelson.

Society in chaos
Mitch is an anthropologist who examines the mummified bodies of a prehistoric family in an Alpine cave. He feels a peculiar empathy for the family and begins to dream about them. He knows they were persecuted and ultimately driven to their deaths by others in their society who were afraid of the disease the family carried.

Things aren’t much better in the early twenty-first century. The flu spreads, and women refuse to go out in public without wearing surgical masks. Rioting breaks out. Human sacrifices make a comeback. As the U.S. authorities’ response to the situation becomes increasingly draconian (internment for victims of the disease, for example), Mitch and Kaye become increasingly certain the flu isn’t a disease at all.

Virus or human upgrade?
The two scientists believe the flu actually is an evolutionary response unleashed in human genes because of overcrowding or other stresses on the population. The babies resulting from the spontaneous second pregnancies might represent a huge step up the evolutionary ladder—though none of the children have been born alive yet.

The scientists face the ultimate test of their beliefs after they fall in love, test positive for the virus, and Kaye becomes pregnant. Will her baby be stillborn? Or a disease-ridden monster that will contribute to the downfall of the human race? Or a new and improved, more evolved human?

Although a few others also begin to believe that the disease may be an important evolutionary milestone (Wired publishes an issue with the headline “Human 3.0: Not a Virus, but an Upgrade?”), Mitch and Kaye must try to protect their child from the majority of the population, who allow themselves to be ruled by their fear instead of their faith in humanity.

The recommendation
The vast amount of hard science in Bear’s work is explained lucidly, but unless you’re a microbiologist, you probably will want to read the “Short Biological Primer” and the “Short Glossary of Scientific Terms” in the back of the book before you start.

I’m not a microbiologist. I have no idea if Bear’s science is plausible, but he certainly makes it all seem believable, and I’m proof that even lay readers will neither become bored nor lose track of the personal dilemmas or the social crises the characters face.

I recommend Darwin’s Radio for your weekend reading.

Thomas Pack is a freelance technology writer.

Know of a book that would be worthy of reading on the weekend? Tell us about it by posting a comment below. If you know of a book you’d like to have reviewed, please drop us a note.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox