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Waiting by Frank M. Robinson, Forge, 1999, 303 pages, $23.95
The Silk Code by Paul Levinson, Tor, 1999, 319 pages, $23.95
For a species—or sub-species, or breed, or however they should really be categorized—that apparently does not represent a direct ancestor of our own, the Neanderthals have proven surprisingly newsworthy over the years. New studies get a front-page slot in The New York Times. Half a dozen more-or-less successful thrillers in recent years have revisited the notion of a Neanderthal survivor cropping up in the present day. The very term serves colloquially as a synonym for "caveman." You might have a hard time finding someone on the bus with you who would recognize a reference to Homo habilis or Paranthropus, but everyone's heard of Neanderthals.
What's the fascination? Perhaps it's the near-miss quality, the notion of a branch of the Homo family so like us but not, it seems, directly preceding or "leading up" to us, an evolutionary what-might-have-been that violates our expectation of neat progression in the human family tree. Or maybe it's the nearness in time—the Neanderthals faded from history only 30,000 years ago, practically yesterday compared to the millions of years that yawn between us and the australopithecine Lucy. Or maybe—one hopes this isn't it, but maybe it's the fact that Neanderthals are the only variety of hominid found primarily in Europe and the Middle East rather than Africa or Asia. I wonder if Neanderthals are as interesting to the Chinese?
Whatever it is that makes Neanderthals so compelling, it's at least as strong—maybe stronger—in SF circles. Speculations about humanity's distant past have been a part of SF since the beginning, and Neanderthals have intrigued SF writers from Isaac Asimov ("The Ugly Little Boy") and L. Sprague de Camp ("The Gnarly Man") to Dave Wolverton, Robert J. Sawyer, and dozens of others. Given the many recent discoveries and reopened debates about our Neanderthal cousins, it's hardly surprising that some of the most interesting Neanderthal SF—dare we coin such a term?—appeared in 1999.
Greg Bear's latest novel, Darwin's Radio, may be the best SF novel involving Neanderthals ever written. It certainly features the most intriguing and thought-provoking interpretation of the place of Neanderthals in human history. I don't think it's giving away too much to reveal that, in Bear's book, Neanderthals turn out to be our direct ancestors after all.
It begins with an incredible find: the frozen remains of two Neanderthals in a cave high in the Alps. The discovery is all the more amazing—and perplexing—because along with the two Neanderthals (a man and a woman) is an infant who, in every way, appears to be a modern human. Mitch Rafelson, the anthropologist who makes the discovery, sees in this bizarre juxtaposition the explanation for the whole confusing fossil record of Neanderthals. Modern humans, he believes, derive directly from Neanderthals through a process of rapid speciation (that is, the appearance of a new, separate species out of a preexisting one). Neanderthal mothers, he suggests, gave birth to fully modern human babies—one species producing another in a single swoop of genetic transformation.
This is, of course, evolutionary heresy, and the scientific establishment works hard to suppress news of the find. Rafelson's already-ruined reputation—the result of a dispute over ownership of some Native American remains—makes his revolutionary interpretation easy to dismiss.
Meanwhile, a mysterious virus begins to afflict pregnant women, forcing miscarriages, and the disease spreads rapidly while scientists race to understand it and work some sort of cure. No one but Rafelson and two scientists on the virus team see the connection—that this new "disease" is the beginning of another break in human evolution, the instantaneous appearance of a new species of human that will take the place of ours.
It's a great premise for a thriller, and Bear handles his plot and the complex ideas at its heart with all his usual skill. Darwin's Radio is far superior to other recent thrillers on similar themes, such as John Darnton's Neanderthal, Mark Canter's Ember from the Sun, and Philip Kerr's Esau, not only because Bear creates fuller, more realistic characters and situations, but also because Bear understands the science behind his ideas more deeply. The implications of dozens of recent discoveries in molecular biology, DNA studies, anthropology, and epidemiology all contribute to the ideas that drive Darwin's Radio, and these roots in the details of current research (not simply the headlines) make Bear's premise more than the engine of a plot. It's rare to find any SF novel that might legitimately claim to offer a glimpse of a real future, but Darwin's Radio does just that, if only in foretelling a revolution in our understanding of evolutionary biology. As Bear notes in his afterword, many of the details of his scenario will likely turn out to be wrong, but our current views on the workings of evolution will almost certainly "undergo a major upheaval—not in the next few decades, but in the next few years." The possibility that the new framework may be something like that put forward by Bear gives the novel a special edge. You'll learn a lot of real science from Darwin's Radio, and it won't hurt a bit.
But what makes Darwin's Radio such a joy is how it succeeds on so many different levels. It's got a foundation of speculative science as complicated and ingenious as any recent SF novel; it's got characters of rare believability that keep the story grounded on a human scale despite its vast conceptual implications; it offers an unusually clear picture of how social and political factors influence the workings of scientific research; and it becomes a moving story of personal hope and struggle against fear and prejudice. How often does any novel yield so much?
In this sense, Darwin's Radio represents the fulfillment of the promise Bear showed in his award-winning Blood Music. That novel has been praised for its unusually deft blend of complex hard science concepts and even more complex characters. Darwin's Radio carries that combination to splendid new heights, and like Blood Music it does so outside the more familiar territories of large-scale cosmology and high-energy physics. For years the biological sciences have been heralded as a wellspring of new hard SF material, but few writers have managed to handle the concepts at any significant depth. With Darwin's Radio, Greg Bear shows exactly how it's done. He sets the high-water mark for biological hard SF. We can only hope other writers will follow.
In Waiting, that species isn't a brand-new one that emerges from our own, but it's the Neanderthals themselves, or their descendants, who have been living among us for 30,000 years, hoping that our murderous species will exterminate itself and make room for them again. (There are suggestions that the other species isn't Neanderthal either, but the characteristics Robinson gives them resemble Neanderthals more than a little, so it seems as well to treat them as essentially the same.) Like Bear's novel, Robinson's takes the form of a thriller, and begins with a discovery that could overturn conventional scientific theories. In this case it's not bodies of the long-dead, but the body of the victim of an automobile accident. A doctor who gets a look at the corpse realizes that it's not the body of a normal human being—it's so different that he's convinced the victim wasn't even a member of the same species—and he's going to write up his findings for a professional journal. The Waiting-among-us are on the verge of discovery, and at least some of them will stop at nothing to keep the secret from getting out.
Though Robinson goes along for the most part with the standard version of the fate of the Neanderthals—except for the hidden survivors—he does add a twist of his own that helps explain one of the lingering questions anthropologists have yet to settle. Based on the available evidence, which is scanty, it seems that Neanderthals didn't have as fully-formed larynxes as modern humans. Could they talk? If so, they likely weren't as good at it as modern humans. Robinson's survivors rely on a kind of telepathy instead, and it gives them a very effective power of suggestion over members of our species. When they remove anyone who might know about them (the doctor is the first to go), they do it indirectly—putting the idea of suicide into one's mind, leading a random homeless man to homicidal rage, using whatever (or whoever) is handy, and thereby leaving no clues to themselves.
Though the scientific foundations aren't nearly so convincing as in Darwin's Radio, it's still a solid concept for a thriller, and Robinson is an old hand at the form (The Power, The Glass Inferno). He moves the story along smoothly, as Arthur Banks—newswriter for a local San Francisco TV station, friend of the doctor whose suspicions began the whole thing—seeks answers to his friend's death and the deaths of others all around him. Soon it's got a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers feel, as Banks learns that he can't trust anyone—that even his best friends could be members of this patient old species, waiting for an opportunity to do away with him in some convenient fashion.
Waiting holds the interest, but it's disappointingly uneven. As events heat up, Banks's actions don't always make much sense, and as we learn more about our successors-in-waiting their behavior too begins to seem less than rational—and even less than possible. At one point Banks is, unbeknownst to him, speaking with one of these secret people while watching skaters at a rink, and as they talk the other uses his power of suggestion to make an old man perform incredible athletic feats on the ice, until the effort kills him. Looking back after we learn more about how this power works, it seems impossible—members of this other species can plant suggestion, but how could they get an old body to do things it's not physically capable of doing? Such inconsistencies, mounting as the book progresses, spoil some of the intensity that Waiting might otherwise have had.
Levinson begins with a reworked version of a story he published in Analog, "The Mendelian Lamp Case," which relates forensic detective Philip D'Amato's trip to Amish country and his encounters there with a hidden tradition of practical biotechnology used by the Amish, and by a shadowy group of unspecified baddies who have been wielding it against the rest of humanity for millennia. In The Silk Code this forms a kind of prologue (though a long one) to the larger story. Levinson then takes us back to the eighth century for a look at an earlier phase of this ongoing struggle, and we get a sense of just how old the battle is. The "singers"—Neanderthals, who communicate in rich songstreams rather than words—have been hunted relentlessly over the millennia by modern humans, and by the eighth century they live only in isolated pockets, one of which lies in the Pyrenees. Their bodies are sometimes also found in the dry sands along the Silk Road, mummified, and ancient tradition warns of a disease the bodies may carry. Silk, it seems, can afford a kind of protection against this contagion, and thus the material is highly prized, and the secret of its production carefully guarded by the Chinese.
Then it's back to the present, where Phil D'Amato gets called in on a case in which the mummified body of what appears to be a Neanderthal is found in a rest room at the NYU library. Mysterious enough, but even more so since it would appear that this body is actually that of a janitor who worked at the library—but the body now not only looks ancient, it actually carbon-dates to about 30,000 years old. When similar corpses pop up in London and Toronto, and the specialists on those cases begin turning up dead, D'Amato finds himself in the middle of a deadly mystery not unlike the one in Waiting.
The Silk Code is Levinson's first novel, and it shows. He's thought up a fascinating concept that pulls together a wide and varied array of ideas and recent discoveries—from Neanderthal DNA and the habits of moths to the mysterious Causcasian mummies that have been found in Central Asia—but he's not quite skilful enough as a novelist yet to bring it off. The opening section, adapted from the Analog story, isn't integrated well enough with the rest of the tale, and the interlude in the eighth century, while engaging, goes on much longer than it should given the little that it contributes to the plot. Meanwhile, other scenes that could have borne more thorough treatment blink past so quickly it's hard to weigh their importance, and still other events happen offstage that would be better seen firsthand.
Nevertheless, what Levinson lacks in novelist's skills he makes up for with sheer conceptual verve. The ideas are interesting enough to make The Silk Code a rewarding book despite its flaws. We can hope that as Levinson gains experience and expertise as a writer, he'll lose none of his knack for provocative ideas, and he'll offer us books with the pleasures of both kinds in the future.
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