Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

Vertigo

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Darwin’s Radio presents a fascinating near future hard science fiction story (actually it is now set in our past but never mind, it was near future when it was written). It explores the idea that our ‘junk’ DNA may actually be a semi-sentient (proactive anyway) memory of genetic strategies for dealing with different challenges to the existence of our genome; in other words the existence of humanity. A fairly grand idea, and if you are thinking of reading it and are not already a genetics expert (as I most definitely am note) I strongly recommend you read his short genetics primer at the back of the book and give the glossary a quick skim and then keep google close to hand. Bear is not shy of dishing out some moderately in depth genetic discussions, particularly in the early stages of the book.

I confess I did find some of the science a little too in depth for my taste but I found the idea and the way he developed it both fascinating and intriguing. He certainly had me hooked with that and I found the plot moderately compelling as well. The execution, however, was somewhat less compelling. I thought many of the major characters’ motivations lacked credibility and I found it hard to empathise with any of them. In particular I found the romantic development very implausible. I’m also very unsure that he has correctly judged the reaction of both governments and their populations to the events of the story. Also the coincidence of the two major discoveries – the virus and the archaeological one – was for me something of a deus ex machina; I just found them happening almost simultaneously a little too much to swallow.

From a British readers point of view I also found myself becoming steadily more irritated by the pure Americanisms that the book was full of. I generally have little problem with these as I am usually familiar with most from exposure to American films, but in this case it was almost as if Bear was looking for them specifically ( here’s a few: single wide, Dopp bag, Bardahl, Charlie horse, Orkin man, banded collar, bull-bellied…). I have never had as much trouble with such Americanisms in any other books including a number of Bear’s own.

Despite those grumbles and the detailed science making it somewhat heavy going at times and a rather weak ending, it was a good book and my fascination with that science and its development throughout the book still lifted this up to a four star read for me. I will be reading the sequel, Darwin’s Children.
 

tinkerdan

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I know what you mean here::
From a British readers point of view I also found myself becoming steadily more irritated by the pure Americanisms that the book was full of. I generally have little problem with these as I am usually familiar with most from exposure to American films, but in this case it was almost as if Bear was looking for them specifically ( here’s a few: single wide, Dopp bag, Bardahl, Charlie horse, Orkin man, banded collar, bull-bellied…). I have never had as much trouble with such Americanisms in any other books including a number of Bear’s own.
:: but I think the word you're looking for is colloquialism [unless colloquialism is another of those Americanisms].
These are commonly used words or phrases that are indigenous to a specific area. For example Charlie horse is both prevalent in the USA and Canada not necessarily the rest of America.

Americanisms tend to be a bit more invasive let's say something like inches and feet and miles where there is the usage of a system of measurement that starts to stretch beyond the borders specifically when having to deal with the USA and trade in commodities that are measured in those respects.

Every region every country has their colloquialisms that often might contain some slang. Every piece of literature has the potential for containing some and depending on the type of literature it can become overwhelmingly evident. I try to be tolerant but there are times when things like 'bubble and squeak' cause this fingernail on chalkboard reaction.
 

Vertigo

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I agree completely and you are absolutely right 'colloquialism' is probably a much better word, and, of course, all books are going to have some, it's just that this particular one seemed to have more than usual. Thank the Lord for the internet is all I can say! :D
 

Anthony G Williams

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My take on it, from my SFF blog: Science Fiction & Fantasy

Darwin's Radio was published in 1999 but I've only just got around to reading it. It is about the next stage of human evolution, although that does not become apparent until well into the story (not a great spoiler, you can gather that from the book cover).

At the beginning, two separate near-future plot threads are started: one follows a disgraced scientist (paleontologist Mitch Rafelson) who is shown a recently uncovered ice cave in Austria containing the mummified bodies of a couple of Neanderthals, plus their baby. The second follows another scientist (biologist Kaye Lang) in Georgia (the country, not the US state), who is called to investigate some strange bodies found in a mass grave. The viewpoint mostly alternates between these two throughout the book, but sometimes switches to Christopher Dicken, a US Government scientist concerned with tracking viruses.

The story focuses on a newly-discovered virus (an endogenous retrovirus, to be more precise) called SHEVA, which has the effect of causing pregnant women to miscarry a strange foetus, before an immediate second pregnancy which results in children being born dead. As this "plague" sweeps around the world, causing rising panic and threatening human civilisation, doubts begin to be raised about the nature of the virus and its implications for the future of humanity.

This story is extremely science-heavy. I try to keep up with scientific developments, but frequently reached the MEGO stage with this tale (My Eyes Glazed Over) and I skim-read a lot of the pages of detailed technical explanation concerning viruses and genetics. I also found that I had a problem recalling various secondary characters who, after being introduced to the reader, occasionally popped up again later without any help being provided in the way of reminders about who they were or what their significance was. Readers are advised to make notes of each character as they appear, it will be a big help later.

This may all sound negative, but buried in there is a story which was intriguing enough to keep me reading to the end; in fact I finished the last quarter of this rather long book in one session. I note that there is a sequel, Darwin's Children, and I might get around to reading it, sometime…
 

Vertigo

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Our responses seem not too dissimilar :) I found the second book a little better; slightly faster paced and slightly (but only slightly) lighter on the science.
 

zaltys13

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Charlie horse... something any reader of Stephen King will be familiar with, along with...hang nail, another weird term for us brits.
 
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