Monday, August 18, 2008

Review - Darwin's Radio

Darwin's Radio
By Greg Bear
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I can understand why science fiction authors keep trying to break into the "airport thriller" field. It's lucrative and, to put it bluntly, that mass audience they're shooting for has neither the demands of science fiction readers or standards of literary readers. So I don't inherently begrudge the attempts even when the result is something better used for bird cage liner; it might make me wish they'd never write anything again but it's not because they tried to get more readers. What does bother me is that the SFWA apparently thinks that these things are worthy of their highest honor.

There's a disease that is dormant in the human genetic code and when something triggers its activation it causes miscarriages. The fetuses miscarried are non-viable monstrosities and that pregnancy is immediately followed by a second one where the the fetus doesn't miscarry.

Our heroes are a geneticist who identified the viral genes before they became active, a disease hunter for the CDC, and a discredited anthropologist who found evidence that the disease might actually be an evolutionary trigger. Together they... um... do... stuff while people riot demanding that... er... stuff happens. Our heroes are in a race against time to... prevent, I guess... something.

Alright, I give up. The plot of this book is completely incoherent. I can follow the individual chapters just fine but they do not connect together in any meaningful way. The first roughly three-quarters of the book has the heroes attempting to understand the disease. The complications occur when people don't want them looking into the possibility that it triggers a species change.

Why someone would want that line of research stopped I have no idea and the book offers none. It's not like their efforts wound up taking away from other efforts to locate a vaccine or treatment methods.

So why the characters need secret meetings about it I don't know. But they have several secret meetings that it's vital that no one know about. Not that it makes any difference when they're eventually discovered.

And why people riot at a scientific conference where they're discussing treatment methods I don't know. People "protest" against the disease and demand the cure... which is the FDA is very publicly fast tracking. It would be like cancer survivors turning up to protest a medical conference where they're releasing details on a universal cancer vaccine they're testing.

Why scientists work to cover-up a Cro-magnon infant being born to neanderthals I don't know. It would be one of the most important finds in archeological history since they were able to sequence the genetic code of both parents and the infant and confirmed it. It would be something completely unfalsifiable, so why they have a conspiracy to bury it is beyond me.

What the heroes hope to accomplish by finding out that the plague is an evolutionary trigger I don't know. There's the glory of finding it, of course, but they act like confirming this will somehow change the fact that it's a disease that's impacting millions.

I spent more than three hundred pages asking "Why?" with no answers before Bear kicked off a nonsensical fugitive plot for the last portion of the book. At least when that happened events in the chapters connected together even if the reasoning behind their actions was even more suspect.

I've barely begun scratching the surface of the problems with the story in the book. Bear tosses in things like an American public not only willing to accept manditory abortions (except the religion right since obviously people who fought for reproductive rights wouldn't care about this) but jailing pregnant mothers. They're not spreading the disease, they don't present a health risk, they're just doing it because the government is evil.

So the story itself was terrible. Unfortunately nothing else in this book is any good to make up for it. The characters are all thoroughly unpleasant ciphers who move according to "plot" necessity (maybe that should read "scene necessity"). For example two of them wind up in bed together after meeting once for an hour for business. Bear needed a "love interest" so he ignored the lack of any kind of establishment of a relationship or behavior that would explain it and just slammed them together arbitrarily. I suppose it goes back to the plotting, everyone does everything arbitrarily which never lets the reader get a handle on any of the characters.

Before I wrap things up I need to mention the evolutionary biology: it's as terrible as the plotting. Not the fact that there's a disease that causes species change. While we know that isn't how evolution works I can accept stepping outside the bounds of normal biological science for the sake of science fiction. The problem comes in when Bear explicitly states that this is triggered by the stresses of modern society. Really. Because apparently modern society is much more stressful than... well... pretty much everything that predates it in human history. By that standard the disease should have been constantly running rampant.

Besides not realizing that homo sapiens as a species have been under constant pressure, Bear also gives the evolutionary process intelligence to recognize what is "better". Better in this case is not simply different, it identifies what a better human being would be by human standards.

The best thing that I can say about the book is that the prose didn't actively hurt me. I have no other kind words for Darwin's Radio and I would strongly recommend avoiding it.