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February 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Evolution by Stephen Baxter
Del Rey Hardcover
034545782X PubDate Feb 03
Review by Edward Carmien

704 pages List price $25.95  
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Stephen Baxter, known for his Manifold trilogy, is not shy about painting big pictures about big ideas. Evolution is just such a big picture, and should be viewed and appreciated as such. Don’t be fooled by the early appearance of characters who receive “early in the novel” attention and development—they appear in very few of the pages of this (lengthy) novel. The people the reader meets in the prologue (including a genetically modified teen) are not the characters of this book. In fact, these human characters of 2031, although intended as a familiar frame for readers to hold onto, distract more than they contribute to the book’s central purpose.

Who is the main character? The primate genes those people carry. Who are the supporting characters? Dinosaur genes, in all their splendid variety and expression. Rat genes. Tree genes. Grass genes. Even the evolving environment, the weather and the landscape of Earth plays a role. Take Baxter seriously when he quotes Darwin before his prologue: “we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity….” What is the plot? In a traditional sense, there is none. In a non-traditional sense, there is a plot here, rich in abstraction, one that de-emphasizes our human-centered view of the world by placing us more appropriately as one step in the great dance of evolution.

Baxter speculates at great length and in great detail about the psychological, cultural, technological, and physical evolution of primate genes from our distant, shrewish past to our even more distant future. Can this be, one might wonder, a story?

By letting loose the mind’s focus on character, yes. The winding path primate genes take over tens and hundreds of millions of years is a literarily Romantic story. The individuals the reader meets are not in themselves important—they represent their species, their behavior represents an expression of the primate genes we ourselves carry. Baxter painstakingly moves us from the shrew-like creatures that co-existed with the dinosaurs through the walking, tool-using hominids of Africa, through Neanderthals, through humans, to an entirely speculative future that is beyond brief description.

To a reader wedded to the notion that a novel must have human (or human like) characters that carry forward a plot (even one on a highly speculative time scale), this novel will disappoint. To best appreciate Evolution, do not care about Alyce and Joan and Bex, people Baxter dangles attractively before the reader in the prologue, in the way readers are conditioned to care about characters from reading more ordinary novels. Do not grow attached to Purga, the shrew-like creature who survives the extinction event that brings the era of the mighty dinosaur to an end. Do not harbor feelings for any of the half dozen and more creatures that serve as tour guides through the ages of evolution.

Since much of the novel takes place in the past, and since primate genes invariably will lead to humans, Baxter takes some pains to keep things interesting. His research was obviously painstaking and thorough. Some of his more speculative notions will amuse. That he takes the time to keep his reader aware of the many facets of development beyond the physical helps keep the text from becoming too one-dimensional.

I recommend this novel to anyone who appreciates novels that take chances, novels that express big ideas. There are chapters here that would be valuable to students of biology when paired with scholarly articles about the same subject matter. Readers who require a human (or pseudo-human) viewpoint and a more typically novel-like plot should not bother with Evolution.

Readers who aren’t sure should take a chance on this book at the library. That is, after all, how we came to be who we are: the chance combination and recombination of primate DNA. Of those who take a chance, some will walk away. Others will remain. And evolution, thereby, goes on.

 Associated Reading: Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (non-fiction)

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