28 September 2010

Biological science fiction

Some time ago, Gary Sankary mentioned, in his blog Old and In the Way, that he'd enjoyed reading Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear. That was a recommendation to explore, even though he said very little else.

In the back of my head I knew that Greg Bear was a science fiction writer. So, the next time I was in the Northfield library, I browsed through the science fiction section looking for his name. A number of his books were on the shelf, but not Darwin's Radio. Okay, I thought, I'll look again later.

After several unsuccessful forays to the science fiction shelves, I resorted to using the catalog (it's still a card catalog to me, even if it's now online). And there I found the book. It had probably been on a shelf all along, but someone had decided to shelve it in the "fiction" section instead of the "science fiction" section.

This has happened before and I don't get it. Sure, there are no space aliens, intergalactic travel, or imaginary technology in Bear's book, but it's the best kind of science fiction. It is (or was when written in '99) a projection of ideas based on contemporary science. So shelve it with the rest of science fiction.

The science it's based on is biology -- molecular biology involving DNA. Now, I still don't understand very much about this science. I have read enough Stephen J. Gould essays to grasp the concept of punctuated equilibrium, but beyond that I'm clueless. Bear could have been telling me that up is down in genetics and I wouldn't have known the difference. But he seemed to understand the basics and some of the scientific speculation. And then Bear struck out from there to science fiction.

WordiQ.com says, "The scientific details in his work are such that he is usually classified as a hard science fiction author...

"Darwin's Radio... stick[s] closely to the known facts of molecular biology of viruses and evolution. While some fairly speculative ideas are entertained (it is after all, fiction) they are introduced in such a rigorous and disciplined way within the context of the cutting edge of those disciplines, that Darwin's Radio gained praise in the science journal Nature."

The mix that informs the plot includes mass murders in Eastern Europe, some possibly Neanderthal mummies in an ice cave in the Alps (Bear was referencing Ötzi the Iceman), a flu-like illness that seemed to be connected to huge numbers of spontaneous miscarriages and new ideas about human genetics. Nearly all the main characters are scientists, although some of them have fled the ivory towers of academe for commercial ventures and public health administration.

The scientific conflict arises when some scientists see rapid evolutionary change as a disease. The public health authorities have to take action to safeguard populations. Other scientists think they recognize evolution at work and do their best to evade the public health officials who threaten a natural process.

The central characters are a molecular biologist and a discredited archaeologist. Bear makes them an attractive couple and makes them fugitives by the end of the book -- sympathetic fugitives, but on the run nonetheless. That transition from science fiction to hide and seek was difficult for me.

There's too much scientific detail in the book for me. Bear spreads his explanation of genetic details quite thickly on the story. In other places, the story telling is somewhat ponderous. I found myself skimming and skipping a lot. But it's an engaging story and I, too, enjoyed reading it. I might even go looking for the sequel, Darwin's Children.

Have you read Darwin's Radio? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

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