Darwin's Radio is an eye-opening story that posits not only an interesting case for punctuated equilibrium over gradualism in evolution, but suggests that evolution itself could be controlled by a sort of genetic network that periodically reawakens long-dormant retroviruses called HERVs, human endogenous retroviruses that change the phenotype when the species as a whole faces threatening levels of stress. Leave it to Bear to explore the frontiers of science in bold new ways. As a biological thriller, Darwin's Radio is also interesting to compare and contrast with Bear's earlier and I think superior Blood Music. This isn't the first time Bear has written about the twilight of homo sapiens, and I'm sure it won't be the last. But it isn't the best time he's done it either. I found much to admire in this story. I found a lot of missed opportunities to shake my head over as well.
The story begins with the discovery of what appears to be a frightening retrovirus that aborts the fetuses of pregnant women. This would be alarming enough indeed, something that could threaten the very survival of our species but further investigation reveals even more strangeness. The fetuses that are aborted are first themselves ovulating, releasing their egg into the mother's uterus! The hapless expectant mothers then find themselves pregnant for a second time, and this time, the infant appears horribly, unaccountably mutated and deformed. All of this appears to be the result of a long-dormant HERV that has, for reasons yet to be fathomed, awakened in the human genome. The disease comes to be called SHEVA. It's an STD taken to previously unexplored levels of nightmare.
Bear's main characters include Kaye Lang, a gifted and recently widowed biologist who is drawn into the maelstrom because she published a paper some years back anticipating reawakened HERVs; Christopher Dicken, a field man with the CDC who has been investigating incidents in eastern Europe over several years that appear to be early SHEVA outbreaks; and Mitch Rafelson, a discredited anthropologist who has found surprising prehistoric remains in the Alps that suggest SHEVA, or something very like it, has struck before. Lang gradually becomes convinced that SHEVA is not really a disease at all. It's actually part of the human evolutionary process itself, a signal from the genome that it's time for a change. Mitch shares her convictions, and so does Dicken, but Dicken can't really bring himself to face the possibility. And SHEVA does, for all intents and purposes, act like a disease. It even mutates. As public panic mounts, it seems there's little they can do to persuade their colleagues, not to mention politicans and the public, that there may very well be no effective treatment on the horizon. SHEVA could be something humanity simply has to face.
As speculative fiction, Darwin's Radio is good stuff. Bear has gone to great pains to ensure that the science behind his imaginary (and thank ghod for that!) retrovirus is plausible. Dramatically, however, the book could have been stronger. I kept thinking this story should have had the sense of fear and foreboding, the inexorable feeling of impending doom, that Blood Music put you through (as well as other excruciating viral nail-biters like Crichton's The Andromeda Strain or Preston's The Hot Zone).
For most of its length, however, Darwin's Radio stays focused principally on the scientists and their quest for answers, and so most of the story is conveyed in dialogue between Lang and others exchanging ideas. In other words, it's boilerplate hard SF; loads of jargon and exposition at the expense of drama or humanity. I don't think I've read a novel recently in which so many scenes were set in conference rooms. This isn't to say Bear forsakes character. Kaye is the most well-developed of them all, with the loss of her husband and the confusing spiral her career takes shortly thereafter conveyed with much warmth and compassion by Bear. Mitch's personal tragedies a couple of ethical lapses in the past that have forever branded him a loose cannon, a nutbar of Fox Mulder proportions evoke sympathy as well. But it's hard to feel much at all for Dicken, almost a nonentity as a bureaucrat (maybe that's the point). And the rest of the cast doesn't move you much either, divided up as they are into Good Scientist and Bad Scientist camps.
What would have helped, I think, would have been to introduce early in the novel a pregnant woman — say, a regular suburban soccer mom — as a major character, her story running concurrently with Kaye's and everyone else's. Then we could have seen how SHEVA was affecting regular folks, non-scientists, through their eyes. The confusion and fear could have added the poignancy the novel needs. (Bear does introduce one pregnant woman, but she's a volunteer lab subject and we only see her through Kaye.) As it is, we hear of tens of thousands of miscarriages, we see faceless mobs of panicked citizens running riot...but we never feel their fear. Their crisis never truly becomes ours. Bear is more interested in the scientific puzzle that needs solving than he is the human lives that are devastated by it. And I think that leaves the book lacking, for all the brilliance of its ideas.
Happily, Bear does begin to give the human dimension greater play in the story's final third. And while it would have been nicer to see it earlier on, it isn't too late when Bear finally reveals it. The finale, though, does become kind of easy to predict once you're about two-thirds through. Not Bear's masterpiece (by a long shot), Darwin's Radio nevertheless is what all good SF ought to be: intelligent and thought-provoking, a rewarding thinking person's fiction. But to have been a great thriller, it should have been scarier, adrenalizing. It should have rocked...like Blood Music.