Darwin's Radio
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83 of 99 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2001
This was the first novel I read by Greg Bear and, overall, I am rather disappointed. The science behind the disease which gives the book its title is fascinating and lies within that intriguing realm of sci-fi which leaves you wondering where the real science has ended and the extrapolation begun. However, what made Darwin's Radio a disappointing read for me was not the heavy handed ecological and epidemiological jargon (some of which clearly could have been excluded), but the poor characterization, tiresome CDC and NIH politics and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion.
I found myself trudging through pages of "intrigue" between the factions of various government agencies which really could not have been more dull. Perhaps this sort of thing would be more palatable to others who are more interested in politics.
The characterization starts off strong but ultimately sinks into cliche, with one character (Mark Augustine) metamorphosing into a cartoonish evil scientist of monstrous proportions and another vanishing almost completely (Christopher Dicken). The main characters, Kaye and Mitch, who are initially presented as brilliant and dedicated (if somewhat troubled) scientists, abandon science altogether in order to solve the mystery of SHEVA by basically experimenting on their own bodies with nothing more than faith as their guide. Further, their romance is ludicrously two dimensional and peppered with such cringe-inducing dialogue as, "Mitch, be my man." Blech.
The conclusion of the novel is incredibly abrupt and leaves so many facets of a very complex story unresolved I found myself thumbing through the dictionary at the back thinking perhaps the rest of the ending was hidden behind it. Alas, it was not.
Overall, the science and speculation behind Darwin's Radio is top notch, but the characters used to flesh it out leave much to be desired. I found this to be a very unsatisfying book which failed to live up to the great promise of its premise.
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65 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2000
I have allways held a strange opinion about Greg Bear. I thought him to be a quite a good writer, but I simply haven't read anything by him I loved. I read a few short stories, and 'Foundation and Chaos', and they were all good, but nothing to addict me.
Alas, neither was "'Darwin's Radio"
But don't let that stop you. Darwin's Radio is certainly worth reading.
I'll start with what I didn't like. The characters, while all different, didn't seem all that interesting. The only one I really cared about was Christopher, and to a lesser extent Saul. They were different and came alive. Bear spent alot of time about the rest of the characters, especially Kaye and Mitch, but I never cared for them, or for the romance.
The other main complain, is that there really isn't too much of a plot. The book is marked as a Techno thriler, but there really isn't any action or advature. The characters are more or less passive spectators, watching Sheva, speculating about it, and trying to survive the catastrophes the world throws at them. In a sense, there's no story here.
OK. Then why should you read the book? Simply, because the ideas behind it are mind blowing, and well explained. Yeah, sometimes I was lost in the science, but I truly enjoyed Bear's scientific imagination. Bear does something that science fiction rarely does - he expands scientific ideas, and he should be commanded for that. Also, the book deserve notice for Bear's ability to make the scientific method, and the scientists, not only comprehensible but also fascinating. The tensest moments of the novel are scientifical exchanges of ideas and theories. At its best, you read with wide eyes as characters present incredible ideas, that seem strangely likely.
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38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
(Note that this is substantially the same review as I wrote for the hardcover edition of the novel)
Greg Bear is a SF writer with an excellent range. While his novels uniformly show a joy in describing unusual and exotic extensions of science as we know it, from the nanotechnology of Blood Music to the unusual physics of Moving Mars, he has always kept the human element front and center in his writings. We care about the people who inhabit his worlds. Darwin's Radio is a story about people and differences. A story about the prejudice of being different, being ostracized, being demonized, being hated and feared. A story of how resistant people are to change, be it changes in scientific theories, changes in what they look like. It much resembles the medical thrillers of Robin Cook. Interestingly enough, there is even a reference to a character reading one of his novels.The plot itself is straightforward enough. SHEVA, an agent lying dormant in our very cells, in our very genes for millions of years, has started to act of its own accord and begun to infect women and men, causing strange pregnancies. Is it a virus? A mutagenic agent? A sign of the end of humanity? Or the mechanism by which the next step in evolution will take place? Several well drawn viewpoint characters, from a discredited anthropologist, to a scientist critical to the discovery of the agent are our windows into this near future world.
Perhaps focused on as much as the science of SHEVA is how the scientists and ordinary people react to its seemingly implacable onslaught. All too plausible to me, as a graduate student of Biology, is the reluctance of academics and ordinary people alike to see the truth for what it is for the mere reason that it contradicts beliefs they hold dear. The blinders worn by many of the characters are all too real. The reaction to the fact that SHEVA evidently overturns formerly accepted ideas in Biology, Anthropology and Evolution is dealt with in realistic manner. In many science fiction novels, such paradigm breaking discoveries would be accepted meekly, without protest, without debate. n Darwin's Radio, Bear's scientists are much more human and much more self interested. The power grabbing by one character, using the crisis of SHEVA as a means to political power, is another fine touch. The chaotic and often irrational reaction of the general public to the crisis is also gripping, scary and page-turning.
Darwin's Radio is indeed science fiction, but it is science fiction which does not spend so much time on the science that the rest of the novel suffers by comparison. As a matter of fact, the book could be effectively marketed as a general fiction novel. It's a science fiction novel for people who would not be caught dead reading a science fiction novel, yet shows clearly Bear's strengths at keeping the science plausible to satisfy even the most devout SF fan.
This book deserves its Hugo Award Nomination, although I do not feel it was the best of the five nominated novels.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2001
Human DNA appears to have a large amount of "junk" material (introns) that doesn't appear to do anything. Greg Bear (and some evolutionary biologists) suggests that at least some of the junk is actually a code for evolution. Others suggest that they are simply old viruses that humans defeated by absorbing them. This book tells the story of how some of these intron sections come to life. Is it an evolutionary change? Is it an old retrovirus coming back to life? This story is one of scientific debate and politics interwoven, two camps develop, arguing over the virus vs. evolution question. Throw in a pinch of religious debate, and you've got the making of a top-notch scientific thriller.
The first half of the book doesn't disappoint - it's a page turner as the "virus" appears to be spreading uncontrollably, causing an alarming number of miscarriages. The government of the U.S. evokes martial law in all but name to try to clamp down on the disease, which naturally causes civil unrest and domestic violence. As the scientists scramble to understand what is going on, a split occurs, especially after evidence is found of a subspeciation event in the distant past - a family of mumified neanderthals (homo sapiens neanderthalis) with an offspring that was apparently a modern human (homo sapiens sapiens).
Unfortunately, the narration runs out of steam in the latter half of the book, as we wait around with the characters to see if any infected mothers can give birth to viable offspring, and if such children are a new subspecies. By the time the last 100 pages roll around, we've already figured out what's going to happen, and there are few surprises.
Scientifically, I enjoyed the book emmensely. A little knowledge of biochemistry helps, but there is a primer at the back and a glossary of scientific terms for those that have never learned much biochem. Unfortunately, most characters in the book are two dimensional. For example, all evolutionary biologists believe in the classic Darwinian (i.e. slow and constant) evolution instead of punctuated evolution (characterised by no change followed by a period of rapid development); I've never met a modern researcher that believes in classic evolution - it seems like all the scientists in this book are living in the 1950's! And, as is usual in science fiction, Christians are classified solely as evangenical bible-thumping creationists who hate science, and all other religions are ignored; again, the majority of Christians accept evolution (albeit controlled by God), but few science fiction writers seem to realise this. Greg Bear is obviously not one of them.
Thus, while I enjoyed the book on a scientific level and found the first half to be exciting, on the whole it's only worth 3 stars.
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28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 1999
Science fiction at it's best is about ideas & extrapolating future scenarios from them. In the tradition of the best classic sf, "Darwin's Radio" does that in a thought provoking, can't-put-it-down manner. However, also in the tradition of classic sf (especially Isaac Asimov), Greg Bear's characters are simply formulaic mouthpieces used to express the authors ideas. There are so many good things to say about this book, that I really hate to quibble, but a good editor could have improved this book greatly. For instance, a whole early sub-plot involving the main female character & her first marriage is simply unnecessary. I understand Bear probably thought it would help in character definition & motivations, but there are other ways those could have been handled. Minor characters are introduced & given major plot devices to handle, then simply disappear. Other characters suddenly have thoughts & actions at complete variance with what has come before.
There are a number of ideas Bear uses in this book that I personally would question him on. I am especially curious as to what he thought the dreams of Mitch Rafelson & Dr. Brock signified, as well as both the Neanderthal couple & modern Herod's carriers having "the mask" which seems quite unnecessary in the case of the earlier evolutionary "jump". However, these are minor quibbles at best.
To sum up: if you enjoy classic "hard" science fiction, stories that deal in ideas rather than character development, & appreciate having a novel make you seriously ponder your own deep held convictions, then "Darwin's Radio" should definitely appear on your bookshelf!
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2000
This is an interesting book with an interesting theory behind it, but I can see why the last third disappointed many of the readers below.
If you want "scientific gimmickry" throughout your read, this isn't for you. Bear establishes the idea of sudden evolution with alot of science early on (whether the science is accurate or not is difficult to tell), then chooses to pursue the social consequences of such a change rather than explain every last detail of it. Thus, as with other novels of his, there are some scienctific loose ends--things not learned about the "science" within the timeline of the book.
Personally, I think this is a good decision and I think his take on how society would react is depressingly accurate. However, you have to be prepared for a radical shift in perspective as he pushes a number of storylines aside to focus on two specific characters.
Several below have also suggested that the ending pretty much requires a sequel. I'm not so sure. Bear does a good job of suggesting the future by highlighting what happened in the distant past. One could construct a socio/political sequel to this book (which fills in the remaining science), but I doubt that many hard-core science fiction fans would want to read it.
All in all, a good novel that gets one thinking about the human animal and his place in the world genome. Thoughtful rather than action/science oriented, but there's a place for that in the genre.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2000
Molecular biologist Kaye Lang, a specialist in retroviruses, works in an obscure corner of her field, so she is utterly unprepared for the tidal wave of fame that strikes when her work becomes the lynchpin of a battle against a devastating new disease. Pregnant women around the world are contracting "Herod's flu," a mysterious illness that severely deforms and kills fetuses. As public pressure and hysteria grow, the U.S. government enlists biotech companies and universities in a race to find a cure, with a reluctant Kaye recruited as their figurehead scientist.
While efforts focus on finding a vaccine, Kaye becomes more and more convinced that researchers are chasing a dead end. The key, unexpectedly, lies with Mitch Rafelson, a maverick anthropologist who discovered a mummified Neanderthal family. Mitch believes the Neanderthal DNA may contain evidence to prove that the retrovirus "SHEVA" is not a disease, but rather the next step in human evolution. But nobody is willing to listen to him.
DARWIN'S RADIO starts out as an engrossing, fast-paced scientific detective story with well drawn characters. As usual in Bear's novels, the science is strong and extremely detailed (and I REALLY could have used that glossary that I didn't find until I got to the end of the book). The near future settings are vivid, and Bear does an especially excellent job of depicting the biotech industry and its relationship with the American government.
Unfortunately, the end of this novel doesn't live up to its beginning, and Bear's problem is structural. Fundamentally this is two different types of stories sandwiched awkwardly together. What begins as a scientific suspense tale about the race to cure a disease, shifts suddenly to a different problem in new settings, narrated at a slower pace. Plot threads developed in the first half of the book are dropped or receive only perfunctory attention, and most characters, including one of the three protagonists, are virtually abandoned.
I can't comment in greater detail on DARWIN'S RADIO without including spoilers, so I'll just say that I found both my suspension of disbelief and my patience wearing very thin in the concluding chapters of this book. And it was frustrating. Bear is an excellent writer. With a stronger ending, this would have been one hell of a book.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2000
It's also not a "techno thriller" (no thrills), or a romance (there's no spark to any of the characters interactions). What it is: bureaucracy fiction. If you're kept on the edge of your seat by reading the minutes of endless meetings between government task force committee members, as well as hearing the 'behind the scenes' political machinations they go through in order to jockey for their position, then by all means rush out & buy this book - it's made for you.
Despite page after page of jargon (which I understood, but it's still jargon), there's almost no scientific speculation here. I'm a big fan of Bear's work; his great strength is taking the seed of an idea and running with it, exploring all the nooks & crannies of possibility. Unfortunately, it's all absent here. After page 40 or so, there is nothing more to be learned, just the inexorable unwinding of the political manuevering of the principle characters. People argue a lot about what the SHEVA virus really is, but the reader knows exactly what it is at the beginning. Bear insures there are no surprises by describing what the eventual "new people" will be based on rumors heard at the beginning of the book. To add insult to injury, he fills the last few chapters with that tired narrative technique, the birth scene. Nothing to see here folks, just move along.
This is so uncharacteristic for Bear. When I see something like this, it makes me wonder what has been going on in the personal life of the author. This book reads suspiciously like paean to the joys of true love, monogomous relationships and parenthood. Was Bear married, or did he become a father, just prior to his work on this?
The book is obviously written as part 1 of 2 parts. The second part looks to be actually interesting; unfortunately the 500+ pages of this book could have been collapsed to maybe the first 80 pages of the next book.
What a disappointment.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2001
I "read" this on a drive from Washington, DC to Detroit, MI and back. (At 15 packed CDs, not much time left to hear anything else, believe me!) Mr. Guidall does everything he can to make this book come to life. He's a real pro. But something this long should have had some kind of point to it, or at least an interesting ending. There's lots of biological and genetic techno talk that you won't need to understand, and weaved around that a pretty pedestrian plot, full of give-aways – Bear stealing his own thunder (you as a reader are way ahead of the characters most of the time, which is absurd and makes you feel silly). By doing childbirth, perhaps Bear decided to go for both the largely male techno audience and the romance ... audience simultaneously. Who knows? Who cares? Oh, and did I mention it was unconscionably long? If you insist on experiencing this novel, may I recommend it in an abridged form? You won't miss a thing.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 1999
I think I used the above words when I finished Moving Mars; they about sum it up. I thought Darwins Radio was a little slower paced than some of Bear's other offerings, perhaps necessarily so to provide the biological foundation, but as usual the last 200 pages just rocketed by. I find it amazing that Bear is comfortable working with the physical sciences (Moving Mars), nano-tech/computer tech (Queen of Angels/Slant), and in this case, the biological sciences. Yet in all genres, devise exciting and credible plots and develop characters that we care about.
The ending was perfect--not a cliffhanger screaming necessary sequal, but something that can stand alone or be continued--I vote the latter. I really like the new variety of human and want to read more about them. I think this is the primary reason I'm taking the time to write these comments. How about "SHEVAs Children" for next year...
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