Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear
7/10, a well-written but ultimately scattered hard science fiction story with an interesting premise
I love Greg Bear’s Songs of Earth and Power (originally The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage). It’s one of my favorite fantasy books of all time. And yet, I was strangely reluctant to pick up his science fiction, for some reason. Darwin’s Radio had been on my radar for a while–Nebula award-winner and one of Bear’s most popular books. So I was pretty excited to get the chance to start it recently.
It kicks off with an almost literal bang, an exploration of a glacier in the Alps that ends in an avalanche and an exhumed mass grave in eastern Europe. It turns out that there has been an increasing incidence of miscarriages in the United States, which is also linked to the discovery of prehistoric corpses in the glacier and the recent corpses in Europe. It transpires that the fetuses being miscarried are deformed, and it’s up to Kaye Lang, chromosome expert, and Mitch Rafelson, explorer and biologist, to work from opposite ends to figure out the connection between these different incidences.
The scientific mystery is engaging, but by the middle of the book it’s pretty much resolved. Bear focuses on the United States’ political response to the crisis, as the number of miscarriages mounts and the public grows restless. Combining this story with the biological story is a bit overwhelming for the book, and about two-thirds of the way through it collapses under its own weight. The political story becomes rather fragmented, and taking the place of the biological mystery is a personal story about a mother going through the pregnancy and experiencing the political changes (most of which consist of the government insisting that she register with them).
I’m sorry to say that I have a hard time seeing why this book won a Nebula. The science is interesting but ultimately left me with questions–for example, why, if the biology is correct, were there sporadic outbreaks everywhere except the United States until the mass outbreaks started? Does that mean there were mass graves somewhere in the U.S. that we don’t know about? There are some other, more specific questions that were left hanging, both about the biology and the politics, but by the end of the novel we do have a sense of how the whole thing is going to play out.
It just seems to happen a little too abruptly and easily. Things change, and Kaye comes up with a theory to explain the change, and it’s correct. There are entire periods of the political process that are just skimmed over. Most of the personal section of the book focuses on Mitch and Kaye struggling against the politics that have been set in place, with some introspection about what this whole change means for them and for humanity.
It’s engaging stuff, and Bear’s touch for characters is terrific. Kaye, Mitch, and several of the supporting characters are three-dimensional and engaging. His imagination and science research are beyond reproach as well. The theories about what might happen as a result of the DNA wound in our chromosomes that we don’t really understand are fascinating and believable. It’s just that the book needed to choose the political path or the biological path, and it tries to encompass both, ultimately fulfilling neither.