Fiction Reviews

Darwin's Children

(2003) Greg Bear, (ed), HarperCollins, 17.99, hrdbk, 387 pp, ISBN 0-002-25732-7


Though this is the sequel to Darwin's Radio it is more than sufficiently self-contained and does stand on its own: so reading Radio is not a prerequisite. The World, rather the human population, has been ravaged by a virus called SHEVA some ten years previously (Darwin's Radio) and today humanity is learning to live with SHEVA very much as we, since the mid-1980s, had to learn to live with AIDS. The big difference being that unlike AIDS (which destroys the immune system so laying its victims open to other (sometimes fatal) diseases, SHIVA mutates humans into what may be the next step in human evolution with the activation of dormant DNA (genes). SHIVA humans have additional ways to communicate with each other and can form tightly bonded communities. They also are more sensitive to 'normal humans' unconscious and biological signals. Not surprisingly there is a fear reaction among many normal humans and so the SHIVA children are rounded up into camps, purportedly for their own protection but also study and security/segregation reasons.

Darwin's Children primarily (but not solely) concerns the perspective of one Stella Nova, the daughter of Kate Lang and Mitch Rafelson (who played a part in the initial SHEVA analysis). They have been keeping their heads down as Stella has SHEVA but has escaped being rounded up. However such a life is not conducive to an adolescent and Stella decides to go walkabout. It is not long before she encounters bigotry and potential entrapment. Meanwhile the authorities continue to attempt to deal with the national/global situation with varying degrees of success and failure.

As mentioned, Darwin's Children echoes the sociological response to AIDS, something of which I am all too aware. Not only, like too many, I both know someone with HIV and have friends of friends in the same boat, I also used to work for the British Medical Association and did a little bit to help promote its 1987 booklet AIDS and You that happened to win that year's 'Plain English Award' (Health Education category). However I do wonder whether someone with a different background might find resonants with the Jewish holocaust, or even South African apartheid?

The science underpinning Darwin's Children is quite sound bearing in mind we are dealing with a work of SF (i.e. fiction). This is an obvious point to make, especially on a website called the Science Fact & Fiction Concatenation, but it is worth emphasising for those works that do closely tread the science fact-fiction boundary, and Darwin's Children certainly does this and as exemplified by the book's excellent scientific glossary, (science) 'caveats' page and a neat 'short biological primer'. Yes, we completed the rough draft of the human genome in 2001. (That year was not so much a space odyssey but a genetic one (NEAR probe notwithstanding).) Yes, years before we detected areas of what appear to be 'junk' DNA. Also we are now confident that James Lovelock's Gaia was right. (Even though many who comment on that work, and much public perception misrepresent the man: so please do me a favour of actually carefully reading his original work before e-mailing or accosting me at conventions, as virtually all who have done so to date have not.)

Regarding this last, Gaia, there are hints in Darwin's Children that SHIVA may be part of something ecologically more holistic. A notion I find allegorically fascinating though I do not believe it scientifically at least in the teleological sense which is where I detect Greg Bear is coming from. Nonetheless this did not at all stop me enjoying Darwin's Children. After all, as in Dark Star, a concept's validity is not dependent on its origins and Bear has crafted a neat story even if scientifically I am across the road from the man.

On one level Darwin's Children builds upon the author's theme of infection, but as Greg Bear pointed out to us in a recent (2004) interview this is only a subset of a broader exploration of 'communication' concepts. As a work, Darwin's Children is a further extension of this investigation which is as worthy a one for SF as is that of space travel, artificial intelligence etc. In s. fact/fiction concatenation terms Darwin's Children is another definite hit.

Jonathan Cowie

Other works of his reviewed to date (Sept 2004) on this site include: Legacy, New Legends, and Dead Lines.

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