Monday, January 1, 2007

Darwin's Radio

What if someone wrote a thriller such that the obstacles the hero must overcome are bureaucracy and the inertia of public opinion rather than galactic threats or the villainy of maniacal despots? Greg Bear's 2000 Nebula Award-winning novel ends up being exactly that book. The concept that underlies the novel is fascinating, that evolution can take place within a generation such that worldwide health officials mistake it for a disease. Bear excels at the explanation of his premise; the scientific passages rival those of Michael Crichton for entertainment value, and the reader walks away with a decent helping of information about the latest evolutionary and biological research.

Fortunately, Bear's characterization works more completely than it did for Moving Mars, such that the three main characters are accessible even if they are not always likable. Among them, they also form an interesting emotional triangle as well as a nexus for the research surrounding the discovery that humankind is about to take its next step. Kaye Lang is the protagonist we follow most often through the course of the novel, and she has moments of strength and weakness, of lucidity and ignorance, just as real people do. But most importantly, those interleaving moments are caused not by inconsistency on her part, but by the movement of the events around her, beyond her control.

Unfortunately, unlike Crichton thrillers, such as Jurassic Park, there is not an immediate peril that the heroes can face down. During the first third of the book, as the characters gather and we are allowed bits and pieces of the evidence for what is taking place, the story moves swiftly and powerfully, from location to location. We meet the characters, their personalities are described through their actions, and the strands of the web begin to come together. But by the second third of the book, we know what is happening to the human race, and the momentum that was built up before is dissipated in the face of the bureaucracy and their unwillingness to accept what is happening to them, which so thoroughly goes against the established theories of evolution. This is not to say that Bear's depiction of a world in the throes of a medical emergency it cannot understand (even if there really is no emergency) is not accurate. In fact, Bear's scenes of disruption are chilling in their likely accuracy. Yet, chapters concerned with scientists and bureaucrats arguing around a board room table simply cannot carry the emotional power of impending doom. There is immediacy, but no one is defending themselves from, you know, dinosaurs on a rampage. And at the end of such passages, there is no climax or momentary release from the tension, just an overwhelming sense of the stupidity of the hive mind. There simply is no fighting the bureaucratic machine--one can run away from it (and the heroes do, many times by the book's end)--and there is no escaping Mother Nature. In fact, the most compellng scenes are those where we witness the public's reaction to the changes taking place around them. The terror, expressed in the protests, the riots, and even the sacrificing of others, carry the emotional impact of the novel until the last few pages, when Everything Changes.

As I was reading, I found myself pondering the convention of this type of book, where a calamity of global importance is taking place, and yet the reader views the most important events from the eyes of a small cast of characters, who often come together. In The Real World, the likelihood that so few people would have such important roles throughout all the phases of such an emergency is rather unlikely. But this fiction is one the reader must follow in order that the story be told with any sort of narrative consistency--how well would the story work if each event was witnessed by a different character, for whom pages and chapters must be spent in order to fully round them out? The author must somehow solve a narrative/structural dilemma--too many page or really flat characters or everything happening to just a few characters. I'd love to read a book that attempts to resolve the problem in a unique way.

So, given the constraints of the kind of book he is writing and the "enemy" the heroes have to face down, Darwin's Radio is a strong novel asking questions that may require real-world answers sooner than we may imagine. The novel is a page-turner and one which I looked forward to picking up as soon as I could after putting it down, Crichton-esque with a twist.

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