Book Review: Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear

Disgraced archaeologist Mitch Rafelson follows a pair of relic hunters across a glacier to a cave in the Alps that contains an impossible secret.

Biologist Kaye Lang investigates a mass grave near Geordi, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and makes a startling discovery.

Officials at the CDC struggle to comprehend a strange new disease killing expectant mothers and their babies.

Three events more intimately related than anyone might imagine. Something is rewriting our genetic blueprint, and time is running out for the human race.

In his Nebula Award-winning novel, Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear spins a globe-spanning tale that is one part apocalyptic thriller, one part near-future speculation, and one part meditation on the nature of humanity and the forces that drive us to adapt and thrive in a constantly-changing world.

How might coping with changes in our environment change us? What adaptations might be necessary? While the evolutionary mantra is “adapt or die,” Bear draws our attention to the fact that it’s easier said than done. Human beings don’t take kindly to change, and when, in Darwin’s Radio, evolution gets up-close and personal,  society begins to crumble.

Perhaps more terrifying than the relentless progress of a genetic disease is the response of the federal health authorities and the scientific establishment. For the government bureaucrats, the first priority is protecting their own interests. Science takes a back seat to political expediency, even as the crisis spirals out of control. As for the scientists, the idea that our future as a species might be determined by something more sophisticated and intentional than random chance or brute-force competition gives them a collective case of the vapors. Even as the evidence stacks up for something disturbingly intelligent behind the new epidemic, they cling to the comfort of timeworn paradigms about how biological change happens.

The story shines in its well-researched speculations about human genetics, but follows the familiar formulas of the scientific thriller until Kaye Lang decides to become her own research subject. As she applies her intellect and skills to make sense of what exactly is going on, she finds herself swept along in the tide of forces physical and emotional that defy rational analysis. She begins to realize that nothing can stop the change that is coming, and fighting it may be precisely the wrong answer. At this point, the story really starts to wrestle not only with what might happen, but with what it could mean to us as individuals.

It’s a gripping and very emotional story. A few characters border on cliche’, like the self-interested government bureaucrats, corrupt scientists scrambling for research funding, and those eternal bogeymen of scientific “progress,” fundamentalist Christian demagogues.

National governments promote abortion as a solution to the impact of the disease on the unborn, presumptively condemning an entire generation of children to death, but a groundswell of opposition to this policy arises and is sympathetically depicted. The ultimate message of the story is unambiguously pro-life.

Despite the caricatures, I found it striking that it was the idea of a design behind human creation and development that gave the scientific community their most profound shivers. It didn’t seem to matter whether the source was God, some unfathomable intelligence, or an emergent process of our own genetic hardware, the scientists to a man (or woman) fought the idea of anything beyond aimless random chance guiding the biological fate of humanity, to their last tooth and nail. I don’t think Bear is far off the mark in depicting that reaction. When science stops searching for truth and chooses instead to defend conventional thought and the status quo against all challenges, it stops being science and becomes something quite irrational, a religion without a moral compass, particularly dangerous in the kind of crisis described in Darwin’s Radio.

The ending screams for a sequel, and there is one: Darwin’s Children. Perhaps I’ll get to it sooner than I did Darwin’s Radio. Hey, it could happen.

I’d rate this at an R for adult situations, some explicit sexuality, and some rough language. Not for kids.

Darwin’s Radio (barnesandnoble.com link)

Greg Bear’s website

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