Ballantine (Del Rey)
I generally have a mixed reaction to books by Greg Bear, a “the ideas are interesting but the characters are not,” sort of reaction. From the books of his I have read, there tends to be more focus on the idea (whatever gimmick or concept he’s introducing) over the actual story, or the characters involved with the story. Add to this the tendency for his male-female interactions to resemble something from a Venus/Mars date book, and my general reaction to a Greg Bear novel more often than not involves backing away slowly.
Backing away slowly was pretty much my reaction to Darwin’s Radio when it first came out. I ended up reading the sequel however, and really liking it, so I decided to go back and read Radio. This book is about a retrovirus that is released during times of great stress in the human species, resulting in a “leap forward” of sorts in evolution. The disease is discovered in a serendipitous fashion as an anthropologist with a criminal record (he tried to steal back some bones that a group of Indians had claimed as being a possible ancestor of theirs), a molecular biologist and a “virus hunter” for the Epidemic Intelligence Service discover an ancient disease that has come back to life.
The disease results in miscarriages (causing it to be dubbed “Herod’s Flu”) followed by mysterious secondary pregnancies. During this time, the disease also causes physiological changes in both parents which eventually turn out to be very handy when the first healthy children are eventually born. (We do not learn very much about the actual children until the second book. This book mainly focuses on the public reaction to the disease, and the general panic, though not in very much detail. Greg Bear keeps most of the attention on the fact finding, and the developing relationship between the anthropologist and the molecular biologist.)
There’s also a strong thread of mysticism with Mitch having very vivid dreams of a Neanderthal couple who had given birth to a mostly modern human baby. (The birth having been the result of the last time the retrovirus had been active.) There’s even more mysticism in the second book.
While I did not dislike the book, there was a lot there that seemed a little contrived, and the developing romance between Mitch and Kaye didn’t really work for me. Their decision to go ahead and have a child apparently just to prove a point, when from what they knew, Kaye might lose the baby, seemed a little rash at best and at worst a variant of a mad-scientist cliché. (You know what I mean, the scientist injects himself with the super serum and the like, except this is a baby and not super powers.) I’m also not sure what the point was of Kaye having a manic-depressive husband who kills himself was, except to deliver a screed against therapeutic medication. (So they would have something in common since Mitch’s ex-girlfriend had also died? I don’t even know.)
This book is an interesting entry in the “humans suddenly split into two species!” genre, and there are a few moments that feel like slight shout-outs to earlier works. (One specific moment reminds me of Village of the Damned, for instance.) My reaction to the book was lukewarm and I don’t think I’ll be re-reading it any time soon.