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It is always interesting when science fiction novels become more relevant over time. A prime example of this phenomenon is Greg Bear’s two-book series, Darwin’s Radio, and Darwin’s Children. Published in 1999 and 2003, respectively, global events of the years following those publication dates cause one to scratch their head and wonder what will happen next. Readers can easily apply the reality of climate change and mutant viruses to Bear’s work and create their own nightmare scenario.
Darwin’s Radio is set in the very near future. An unknown virus is causing pregnant women’s fetuses to self-abort. Upon further investigation, it is discovered that the aborted fetuses have left their own fertile eggs to develop in their place. These new lives, while viable, suffer from bizarre mutations.
At the same time, in the Alps, anthropologist, Mitch Rafelson, has discovered the remains of Neanderthals. The newborn in their midst appears to have suffered from indescribable abnormalities. In Atlanta, microbiologist, Kaye Lang, is studying the “junk” portions of DNA molecules. She discovers a retrovirus that appears to activate various strands of this junk DNA. The results are disturbing.
Society’s panic reaction to these concurrent discoveries is understandable. As the world realizes that evolution may not necessarily be time contingent, attempts to isolate the carriers and victims of the virus become inhumane. Is it possible that evolution could result from mutation over a generation or two? Is the end of the human race as we know it inevitable? Is it happening within our lifetime? These are the potential facts faced by humanity.
As always, Bear bases his works on hard science theory and weaves a compelling tale. Science and technology are at the forefront in the first half of the book. As the individual characters come together in their efforts to fight the calamity that has befallen humanity, their relationships begin to humanize the story.
The reader will find themselves researching RNA and DNA science throughout their reading of this book. The science is so familiar and immediate that the events of the novel seem inevitable and almost expected. That reality makes Darwin’s Radio a gripping read.
Darwin’s Children continues the story of accelerated human evolution. Set eleven years after discovering the retrovirus that set the mutation of human DNA into motion, the novel explores the social reaction to change. While not possessing superpowers in a fantasy sense, the new humans do exhibit traits that set them apart from the “old” humans.
Misunderstanding and intolerance of the new class of humans breed hatred. Fear of contamination from proximity to mutants creates a movement to isolate the new children. They are hunted by government agencies and whisked away to camps for containment. Parents of the new children band together into resistance groups to hide mutant children and free those captured.
Kaye and Mitch are members of the resistance. As scientists and the parents of a new child themselves, they live undercover, hoping to avoid the attention of government agencies or bounty hunters who would deliver Stella to a camp without hesitation. Despite their efforts, they have not escaped the government’s radar. They are manipulated into continuing their research into stopping the plague.
The dynamic of new children relating to other new children and old humans is a large part of the novel. The perceptions and interactions between children with various mutations are touching components of the story. Very few children share mutations. It is as if nature has either diversified the human species or is testing a variety of variations for feasibility. The camp becomes a sort of microcosm of humanity. A variety of races in a contained space forced to compromise if there is to be any hope of survival
Much of Darwin’s Children is reminiscent of the original X-Men films. Since both deal with a similar subject, this is not surprising. Bear is careful not to make the new children in his novel “super” by any means. Most of the mutations seem almost detrimental for the child who possesses them. Bear’s descriptions of the modifications and their world perceptions are richly detailed and precise. The strangeness of the experience as realized by the characters is not lost on the reader.
The Darwin’s Radio series is not considered Bear’s best work by many fans. The novel is not as action-packed and bizarre as some of his works. This familiarity does make the story more natural to the reader. Though written in the early 2000s, global events of the late 20-Teens and 2020 make the novels worth revisiting if you have read them and worth a first read if you have not.
Written by Sam