Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children

radio.jpgHere I sit at 9:40 in the morning, enjoying my summer holidays. The sounds on the street are the normal sounds in my little neighborhood: kids hollering at one another in Korean; cars honking; cicadas buzzing out their deafening symphonies. I bite into my breakfast, a scone (still a little frozen, but enjoyably so) and drink my coffee, coffee my girlfriend gave me, coffee from Canada that has somehow been made to taste like chocolate and raspberries.

And I all I can imagine is, what if all this normality was just a very short-term thing? What if it was something that had to get interrupted, by nature, every so often? What if normality suddenly fell apart from within ourselves, and everything changed?
I’m thinking about these things because I just finished reading a book that is all about the very same questions.

It’s actually a bit wrong of me to review both of these books in one go, not only because I actually finished reading the latter only minutes ago, and the former a good year ago. But I am fairly certain that the best way to look at these books is together.

I remember when the first book came out, that I was still, though beginning to ease away from it, subscribed to a mailing list where people discussed the work of certain hard-sf authors, including Greg Bear. I remember a neurologist going on at great lengths about why what Bear had written was simply impossible. “Human evolution doesn’t, and can’t, work in that way…” was the gist of what he’d said. Or, rather, “It’s just too improbable.”

I’m not a scientist, so I wouldn’t know what in the book is or isn’t probable. I do know that when I am not in the know of the complexities of something, then a skilled writer can make just about anything sound probable. However, there are a few things I want to note that this book does wonderfully:

  • It asks about, “Okay, but what if we’re wrong?” This is an important question that we in our century tend not to think too much about. We are so proud of how science has given is refrigerators and laptop computers that we tend to assume whatever sounds workable and is coming from a scientist’s mouth is probably right.

    But in the novel, we see so many different things conspiring to limit the advance of understanding. There’s public policy and politics in Washington; there’s personal stake in theoretical conservativism (for some scientists at least, for their careers are dependent on their credibility); there’s public opinion and its impact on funding. While the novel is a fictional work, all of these pressures on science are real, and enact themselves upon real science as well. Especially the political dimension of science is wonderfuly described, in such a way that you can see how deeply Washington can get involved in matters, at least for a time.

    So yeah, maybe what we call punctuated evolution doesn’t happen in this way. But what if it happened in some other surprising, startling, sudden way? What if it were possible? Or what if some other, unanticipated (unimaginable, in terms of current theory) change were to occur? Could we even cope with overhauling our theories to allow for its possibility?

  • As Bruce Sterling talked about in the lecture I linked to a few days ago, there’s also just that common (and probably natural), “Nah, it can’t happen!” attitude that so many people have. And in Bear’s novel I think we see the dark side of what happens when a few humans inadvertently prove that it can happen: the reaction is almost always suppressive and punitive, to the degree to which it threatens the status quo. It’s not always prisoner camps or “reeducation centers” like the mutant “virus children” in Bear’s novels are sent to: sometimes it’s something as simple and prosaic as a hacker crackdown, but whoever pushes the technological, biological, or even just the cognitive limits of the status quo tends to be punished by those who fear them. The way American society reacts is quite believable, in this novel. What I’d love to see is how the rest of the world behaves.
  • The novel does something which, I believe, the real world does to us as well: it throws a surprising question into our laps, a question we never even thought about, and demands that we find some way of understanding it. Sometimes we formulate the surprise as a problem to be solved, but it isn’t always a problem. Sometimes it really is all just in how you look at something.
  • Bear is one of the first sf writers I’ve read to finally give religion some kind of break. One of his central characters experiences a religious epiphany, and no, she isn’t immediately labeled as crazy and marginalized. Aging hippies—obvious new-agers, from the way they dress, speak, and the kinds of jewelery they wear—actually aid characters in a time of need. Faith in the unbelievable is okay, Bear seems to be trying to say. Of course, the scientific establishment may ridicule believers, but then the scientific establishment can also be as doctrinaire as any fundamentalist Christian.

    Not that all good characters are theists. In fact, one of the central characters has neither experience nor interest in God, while another has repeated epiphanic experiences. Bear doesn’t really leave things as open as I would like, of course: I would think that the epiphanic experiences are not really God as much as the psychological experience, common to people all over the world, which led to the initial formulation of the idea of God. Bear doesn’t mark that as impossible, as some writers might; in fact, the physiology of the experience, which he has a character examine, is quite interesting and suggestive.

    But regardless of my discomfort in Bear’s strong-seeming conclusion that it is in fact God that the character is experiencing, I am just thankful, grateful, to be encountering in SF some kind of depiction of people outside of the scientific realm as decent people; as people who can have faith in something outside of science, without being either crazed theocrats or hateful lunatics. And instead of the Mad Postmodernist figure, what this novel presents as foils to the rational, decent scientist protagonists are an understandably scared public, a corrupt politician, and a couple of bigoted, self-important scientists. What a relief!

  • The novel asks the question that is everpresent in my own writing, which is, “What does the word human mean?” Bear rather astutely has not only the adults, but also the Shevite “virus children” present differing opinions on this question. Senators declare the children nonhuman in the blink of an eye, by inference (a kind of bigotry all too familiar even among scientists in the past, though such familiar bigotries have of course since been disproven by science—so it is that we would do well to recall scientists are not magically immune to culture and its blinding effects); the children at some points refer to the adults as “the humans”, as if to distance themselves from the Hominids who are so different from themselves. And yet, Mitch and Kaye and Stella all seem, in the end, to look upon the ancient campsite of a band of early humans from differing subspecies and feel that it conveys a very important message: that the Shevite children are human, and neither the adults nor their own denial will do anyone any good. Still, at the close of the novel, the question is still profoundly complex; looking into the eyes of the first second-generation Shevite infant, Sam, we can only wonder how many time such a change can occur (via the punctuated evolution of SHEVA, or simply long-term normal Darwinian evolution—or, perhaps, even technologically fueled self-modification of modern humans) before the resulting beings are as different from us as we are from chimps. The time I wonder about is when they will look back at us and, perhaps a little despairingly, have to admit that we’re just not the same kind of creature anymore.

In any case, this pair of novels together constitute one of the better works of modern SF that I’ve read. Bear grapples with so many of the questions that I think are crucial now, and he does it in a very interesting, informative, and entertaining way. I recommend these novels wholeheartedly.

Next on my reading list? I’ll finish those books which I’m only halfway through (Thoreau’s Walden and V.S. Naipaul’s The Writer and The World: Essays. I’d also like to finish reading The Watchmen, my one and only English-language graphic novel. After that, back to text-only novels for a bit, and I think it’ll be one of the SF books I got in Toronto. Maybe Vurt.

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