Friday, February 3, 2012

100 Books #9 - Greg Bear's DARWIN'S RADIO

Just over a year ago, I gleefully dove into the wonders of John Wyndam's The Midwich Cuckoos on this very blog, little knowing what a neat parallel to it I would find the following year in Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, a book which attempts to answer, in excruciating scientific speculative detail, the question of what it might be like if the children that made Midwich such an effective horror story, turned out to be mostly benign. Mostly.

Greg Bear is one of those writers who give hard sci-fi a good name. His case for evolution being something other than the gradual and randomly lucky process we tend to think it is, is painstakingly researched and presented, with just enough variety in the expository passages to keep the reader from feeling lectured to. His idea for how a new human species may arise to possibly replace us feels fresh and believable even if perhaps a tad pollyanna-ish.* And his version of that new sub-species, only glimpsed in this book (one presumes that the sequel, Darwin's Children, will give us a closer look), seems charming and welcome -- though seen only, in this book, through the eyes of a very specific kind of viewpoint character, the mother of one of the new specimens, who also happens to be the scientist who predicted how they might come about. The rest of the world is kind of freaked out, expecting Midwich, perhaps, on a grand scale, and lashing out. Xenogenesis is maybe never welcome.

I've a decent background in molecular and cell biology, so I found some of the lengthy explanations tedious, but even so I was glad to have the glossary at the back handy as I read. One wishes, though, in books like these, that their ebook versions had that glossary hyperlinked, so that whenever a tricky term came up, one click might lead one, not to the reader's admittedly pretty OK built-in dictionary, but to that richer resource included in the book. I suppose no one wants to scare up an intern willing to do all that grunt work, though. Sure would be nice.

In the end, Darwin's Radio was a good enough read, but nowhere near as fascinating and chilling as what I still think of as Bear's finest novel, Blood Music, a spectacular piece of sci-fi horror, a gradual intellectual creepiness setting in slowly until its premise's full implications are realized in the grandest possible manner (think Scott Sigler on a much slower burn with a lot less gore and a lot more thought experimentation). Here it's all more subdued, even the body horror potential of xenogenetic pregnancy, and the characters kind of uniformly well-informed and bland. I would have liked some non-scientist point of view characters, or at least a real renegade like in Blood Music (if you're new to Bear or just want to try one of his books, I'd recommend that over Darwin's Radio). As it was, I had to sort of flog myself to finish this one.

Of course, maybe I've just been spoiled for this genre by Baby McButter.

*Myself, I still go for the Michel Houellebecq version of how that's going to happen: we're so sick of being ourselves, inhabiting these kluged bodies and brains, that we sit down and redesign ourselves from scratch and breathe a collective sigh of relief as we see our children slowly outlive us to create a world free of persnickety things like unrequited sexual desire. Check out his magnificently bleak and decadent The Elementary Particles for the whole deal.

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