Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2000 Nebula – DARWIN’S RADIO by Greg Bear

Greg Bear becomes the second author to win two novel Nebulas without having won any novel Hugos. Samuel Delaney was the first, and he makes a lot of sense. He was the New Waviest of the New Wave, who won at a point when Hugo was still handing statuettes to old schoolers like Heinlein. I think Bear’s success demonstrates how the Nebulas have changed. They’ve moved from rewarding “writers’ writers” of edgy sf and begun to favor character-based works that are light on the sf. In the ‘90s at least, I think they’re so focused on expanding the definition of science fiction, that they haven’t always been recognizing the best works. Of course, the big science fiction successes of the ‘90s (neither of which make an appearance on my masterlist of award winners for this blog) are The X-Files and the works of Michael Crichton, and, as in Robert Sawyer’s Terminal Experiment, that’s the model we’re working with here.

Darwin’s Radio has a fantastic pair of opening sequences. Anthropologist Mitch Rafelson discovers an unusual pair of mummified Neanderthals amidst a thrilling climb in the Alps. Evolutionary biologist Kaye Lang investigates a mass grave in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Both of these discoveries (whose simultaneity is only extremely contrived) connect to an emerging epidemic of a miscarriage-causing virus called SHEVA. Mitch and Kaye both come to the conclusion that this virus, which has emerged from non-coding remnants of ancient viruses locked in our DNA*, is actually prompting a rapid evolution in the human genome. Then the government chases them.

I had two major problems with this novel. First of all, it’s a novel about scientific ethics that is entirely without an ethical center. Mitch hates that he has to respect Native American interests under NAGPRA when dealing with ancient remains. Kay’s instincts tell her that her baby will be okay, so she shouldn't submit to the epidemic-fearing CDC, who are portrayed as tyrants for trying to halt the spread of what looks like a deadly virus. The day after pill is….something. Patenting parts of the genome is right, unless it’s wrong? Bear seems confused about those last two. At the end of the day, the novel is not about creating a reasonable ethical framework to deal with a novel problem (which could have been exciting to read about), it uses ethics to create artificial conflict. The final arbiter of right and wrong comes down to Bear’s protagonists: if they believe it, it’s probably right. If the smarmy, interfering government antagonists believe it, it’s wrong.

An even bigger problem is that I just didn’t enjoy the novel. It moved slowly and focused on the characters’ miserable lives. I went to the novel’s Wikipedia article to double-check the spellings of the characters names, and I found a fairly detailed summary that manages to go on for three paragraphs without mentioning any characters. That’s kind of telling. It’s not that Bear doesn’t spend time on the characters; as in Benford’s Timescape or Sawyer’s Terminal Experiment, most of the novel is spent on detailing their tawdry lives and petty politics. But, if the Wikipedia author is anything like me, she didn’t care about or like the characters, so I don’t blame her for skipping them and sticking with describing the book’s fake science.

The most interesting part of this novel for me was the question of what would emerge from this evolutionary infection. Turns out that I have to read another book called Darwin’s Children to get into that. After this one, I’m not gonna, especially since the last few pages were rather discouraging on that front. Communication by scent? Didn’t our ancestors drop that trait several millions of years ago?

My ‘90s recap is up next, and I predict that I’m going to say mean things about the state of the Nebula awards in this decade.

*These remnants really do exist; the rest of the science in the novel felt like pure bs. Bear needlessly complicates evolutionary theory to a ridiculous degree. You’d think genes as a networked intelligence might be an interesting concept. Here, unfortunately, it is not.

Grade: D+

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