Greg Bear

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"Darwin's Radio"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark Jun 16, 2002)

With the mapping of the human genome project nearly complete, there are all sorts of science fiction novels one might imagine, but as far as I know, not one comes even close to the events Greg Bear puts together in Darwin's Radio. This is an exceptional combination of up-to-date genetics; a true-to-life story that speculates on how society would handle the subspeciation of homo sapien; and an incredible imagination as to what the new human might be like. All the elements that make up a good sci-fi read.

This Nebula Award winning novel centers around three main characters Kaye Lang, Mitch Rafelson and Christopher Dickens. Each has their own community of trusted friends and family, political connections and professional work relations, so there is a lot to keep track of, but Greg Bear keeps the story moving and the connections fresh for us. And of course, the three meet up and share their information when they realize that what they know could have a pivotal bearing on the future of the human race.

Kaye Lang is a molecular biologist doing research in the Republic of Georgia working with the Eliava Institute team in Tbilisi to learn all she can about phages - a virus that uses bacteria as a host. Kaye's husband owns a small pharmaceutical company and it is their hope that they can form an alliance with Eliava and produce a phage that can be used as a new antibacterial agent.

But then, the UN pulls Kaye away with a request that she investigate a mass grave site found in Gordi -- at least until they can find someone official to help. Although rusty in forensics, Kaye knows enough that she can date this as a relatively new grave site. It is also obvious to her that the mothers were pregnant and shot in the stomach. Though the local authorities do not agree with the time assessment; they say these graves are from the late 30's, dug a few years before the great People's Wars and thus nothing for the UN to look into. The next morning they are run off the site and sent back to Tbilisi. They have obviously stepped on someone's toes and Kate fears it will affect the future of her husband's company.

Meanwhile in Austria, anthropologist Mitch Rafelson has been coerced by an ex-girlfriend and her current boyfriend to climb up into the icy Alps to look at some bodies they've found. Mitch knows he shouldn't be doing this. He's already ruined his reputation and lost a job over a controversial handling of some Native American bones. If this is truly another "Ice Man," then he's going about this all wrong. But curiosity has the best of him. Though he was expecting old, the cave holds an even more spectacular find, although disturbing. It's a well-preserved family, most likely Neanderthal. The man lies beside his woman, who appears to have been stabbed in the stomach -- and they have a baby. He has just enough time to gather DNA plugs before the three of them must begin their descent down the mountain.

Christopher Dickens is a virus hunter for the CDC. He travels the world to stay abreast of the latest epidemics. His trip to Gordi and Tbilisi are more out of self-interest - a hunch of something that he's been following and piecing together -- rather than official business. Interesting enough, the very same Kaye Lang published a paper two years earlier predicting an ancient HERV - Human Endogenous Retrovirus - that could potentially wake up and be transmitted laterally through infection. Although HERV has been part of the human genome since the "evolutionary branching of Old World and New World monkeys" and every human has always carried them, these HERV up until now have been benign, passed on vertically through reproduction only --- and the thinking had been that they were just genetic garbage or abandoned fragments.

But Kaye's work on the possibility that of a retrovirus becoming active strikes a note with something that Dickens has seen in various parts of the world. He has been pursuing a flu-like disease that strikes pregnant mothers and their offspring. He believes the bodies found in Gordi might have something to do with Kaye Lang's theory. Although he is convinced this HERV virus is involved, he doesn't feel his facts are conclusive and ready for the public. He also thinks he has more time since, as far as he can tell, Kaye hasn't pieced together the significance of the bodies in Gordi.

But in a turn of events, Dickens is called back to Washington to learn that his two-year investigation is about to be overshadowed. A young researcher at UCLA Medical Center, looking into seven rejected fetuses, has found an unknown virus. The first infectious HERV has been identified. And Dickens' politically motivated boss, Mark Augustine, is ready to go public with this information, especially if it means that he can get more funding and more clout. Kaye Lang is about to become a very famous person.

The CDC labels the retrovirus found in the fetuses as SHEVA. And in no time, there is a new epidemic that is causing a rift between the sexes and a public outcry from religious organizations. And the CDC seems to not be able to communicate nor resolve this infectious disease. But is it SHEVA a disease? What has stimulated it to come out now and for what purpose? Is it possible that this has happened before? Kaye, Christopher and Mitch each individually have pieces required to figure out this evolutionary puzzle, but such radical thinking takes some very brave people. And even if they do have a hunch, can the powers that be set aside their own political agendas long enough to listen?

I'm not going to say that reading Darwin's Radio is easy - but it is so worth it that I urge you to try this one out -- and stick with it. Many of his fans say that Greg Bear is best when he writes "hard science fiction." Hard in this sense is supposed to mean well researched, but I could easily interpret that to mean difficult for the average lay person to understand! Kaye Lang is one smart cookie. I was sort of hoping that when she did a press meeting that she'd finally talk down to me in English. But true to her character, she didn't. Nevertheless, you can get the gist of what it is all about even without it being spelled out. Mind you, I discovered the glossary of scientific terms AFTER I finished the book. This probably could have helped sooner, assuming that I could stop reading long enough to look up some of the tougher terms.

Darwin's Radio is as stimulating to the intellect as it is for the imagination. I found that the beginning of the novel was a mix between page-turning events and then, tough technical description, which would slow me down (but never stop me). Just as I was about to wonder why I was putting so much effort into trying to read this book (when I have so many others yet to read), it suddenly opened up wide and I felt like I was on the downside of the roller coaster. Sometimes to get a good thrill, it is a slow slog to the top. So now I'm ready for a sequel!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 303 reviews
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(Reviewed by Judi Clark Jun 16, 2002)

I've been wanting to add Greg Bear's Eon as a highly recommended novel for sometime now, but it had been such a long time since I read the novel and I really didn't know what to say, outside of I just remember really enjoying reading it.

But while I was writing the review on Darwin's Radio, I kept trying to remember which science fiction writer the book reminded me of - that is, what had I read in the past that had such a mix of technical, socio and political observations, really imaginitive plot, strong characters and yet still read like an action-packed thriller. Then it dawned on me that I should go back and look at Eon. Not so surprising, Greg Bear reminds me of Greg Bear. This guy writes awesome novels.

Unfortunately, I read it long enough ago that I am going to have to refer to the book jacket to tell you what this novel is about:

"It is the 21st century and the world is on the brink of nuclear confrontation. A 300 kilometer-long stone comes out of nothingness and into Earth's orbit. NASA, NATO and the UN send explorers to the asteroid's surface... and discover anough marvels and mysteries to drive researchers mad. It turns out that the Stone was from space --- but perhaps not our space: it came from the future -- but perhaps not our future, and within the hollowed out asteroid was Thistledown, the remains of a vanished civilazation. A human - English, Russian adn Chinese-speaking --- civilization. Seven vast chambers containing forests, lakes, rivers, hanging cities.... And museums describing the Death: the catastrophic war that was about to occur: the horror and the long winter that would follow. But while scientists and politicians bickered about how to use the information to stop the Death, the Stone yielded a secret that made even Earth's survival pale into insignificance...."

Hmmm, I think I would enjoy re-reading this one!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 102 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to

The Forerunner Saga:

FBI Series

Eon Series

Infinity Concerto Series

Nanotech Series

Forge of God Series

Star Trek books:

Short Story Collections:


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Greg BearGreg Bear is the author of twenty-eight books of science fiction and fantasy. He has been awarded two Hugos and four Nebulas for his fiction, one of two authors to win a Nebula in every category. He has been called the "Best working writer of hard science fiction" by "The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction." His last novel, DARWIN'S RADIO, a novel about human evolution, has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the Nebula and has been honored with the Endeavor.

Greg Bear has also worked as a bookseller and lectured for the San Diego City Schools, acting as a roving teacher and conducting short classes on ancient history, the history of science, and science fiction/fantasy. As an illustrator, his artwork has appeared on Galaxy, Fantasy and Science Fiction and Vertex and books both hardcover and paperback. These days he does very little artwork, devoting himself almost exclusively to writing. He has served at several positions with SFWA, including Vice President of SFWA for a year, and President for two years (1988-1990). He has also served on the Citizen's Advisory Council on National Space Policy, consulted with Microsoft and other software companies and served as science and speculations advisor for the pilot episode of the Amblin/Universal TV production Earth 2.

He is married to Astrid Anderson Bear and the father of two, Erik and Alexandra. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014