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Monkey Business

Filling the evolutionary niche in the contemporary thriller

by Dale Bailey

Evolution has been kind to pop novelists of Michael Crichton's ilk in recent years, winning big advances and bigger press runs for authors hoping to transform Charles Darwin's ruminations about the origins of life into sci-fi thrillers with Jurassic Park-size profits. Two such novels appeared in 1996. Petru Popescu unleashed Almost Adam, the tale of an undiscovered East African plateau where evolution has frozen, while John Darnton released the similarly themed Neanderthal, about the discovery of a Pleistocene-era branch of the human family still living in Central Asia.

Despite interesting premises, neither novel quite succeeded. Almost Adam faltered on scientific plausibility. Just how does an entire African plateau escape the notice of all those eyes in contemporary skies? And granting that it does, why shouldn't the plateau in question be subject to the same evolutionary laws as every other square inch of the planet? Neanderthal was weakened by its reliance on stock characters and situations, as in Darnton's depiction of rival paleontologists who also happen to be ex-lovers. Neither book performed to publisher expectations, and the field of evolutionary thrillers seemed to go extinct.

However, two novels new to paperback this summer—Frank M. Robinson's Waiting and Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio—offer fresh entries into the evolutionary rat race, proof positive of Darwin's axiom that nature hates a vacuum. Waiting posits the existence of the Old People, a Neanderthal-like race of proto-humans driven into hiding by the savagery of newly evolved Homo Sapiens during prehistoric times. After 35,000 years, circumstances are right for the Old People to claim their revenge upon their human competitors, and when Artie Banks, a San Francisco reporter, begins investigating the murder of an old college chum he finds himself on the front lines of this incipient war.

Darwin's Radio takes a different tack. Rather than stone age survivals, it presents the next stage of human development, an evolution propelled by ancient retroviruses buried in the human genome. While the retroviruses at first produce horribly mutated newborns, they gradually become a catalyst in the development of a new breed of human. The novel depicts the response of contemporary American society to this crisis, focusing on competing groups of scientists: the career-minded bureaucrats at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), determined to treat the evolutionary changes as a new AIDS-like disease, and an opposing group of maverick researchers, cognizant of the true nature of the "plague."

Both Robinson and Bear began their careers in science fiction, a background evident in the sophistication of their scientific premises. In this sense, both novels present a positive evolution over their predecessors. Yet they are not equally successful. Robinson left science fiction for a stint as the writer (with collaborator Thomas Scortia) responsible for The Towering Inferno. His tenure atop the bestsellers list shows in Waiting, which occasionally sacrifices logic in conforming to the protocols of the mainstream thriller. When Robinson asks us to believe that Artie Banks stumbles upon evidence of a coexisting species of humanity, we want to do so. When it turns out that everyone Artie knows—including his wife and step-son—is connected to the conspiracy, we're more hesitant to go along.

Because the novel's suspense derives from keeping the reader in the dark about these connections, Robinson is also forced into using unwieldy expository techniques. These include a sober presentation of telepathy that undermines the solid science elsewhere in the novel, and clichéd set pieces where the villains pause in delivering the death stroke to patiently explain how they managed everything.

Bear avoids this problem by focusing on scientific puzzles and the techniques modern researchers use to solve them. Carefully rooted in cutting-edge biology, Darwin's Radio is above all believable. The suspense arises not from the conventions of best-selling thrillers, but from realistic conflicts among scientists facing a body of data that demands a radical break from conventional wisdom. In its depiction of CDC researchers too frightened to embrace that paradigm shift, the novel becomes a study of how willful ignorance and fear too often degenerate into prejudice and hatred. The novel's final third is a chillingly plausible vision of the United States as a fascist regime complete with concentration camps.

Both books score points for sympathetic portraits of competing evolutionary lines "passing" as human beings. In their depictions of the conflicts and betrayals that might arise from such a situation, Robinson and Bear offer potentially powerful mirror images of a world divided along lines of race and national identity. While Waiting largely elides these symbolic resonances, Darwin's Radio offers a telling portrait of the dangers racism and hatred pose to our present society.

August 17, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 33
© 2000 Metro Pulse