DARWIN'S RADIO, by Greg Bear
Harper Collins, 2000, Paperback, 440pp, £6.99
ISBN 0-00-651138-4

As New Scientist has pointed out on the back cover, "Darwin's Radio is a tense technothriller in the Michael Crichton vein…" and, just as with Crichton's work, you almost can hear the publicists screaming, "It isn't science fiction, OK?! It's a technothriller."
Then, just to hammer the message home, it has a stunning medical-turquoise cover and the title and author's name in exceptionally large type, whilst inside, the details of Bear's life - condensed into nine lines - show that, "he published his first science fiction story aged sixteen [but despite that] his novels and stories have won prizes and been translated around the world".
There isn't a mention of Bear being one of the biggest sf writers alive today.

Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but this seems a depressing statement about the public perception and market position of sf today. Well, more power to Mr Bear if he makes it truly big - and who knows, perhaps the best way to improve the general public's perception of sf is through some New Labour-esque "Third Way" - tell them it's something else altogether and they'll buy it!

Darwin's Radio certainly won't lose the genre any fans. It's a fascinating concept, sort of "Q: When is a disease not a disease? A: When it's an evolutionary strategy!" The science is fascinating throughout, but more interesting is the murky cloud of politics and spin doctoring that surrounds the discovery and explosive spread of an entirely "new" form of retrovirus, SHEVA,which causes pregnant women to first miscarry and then spontaneously conceive again.

You might expect the fundamentalist right to come off badly in such a scenario, and they do, but it's far more interesting to note that so do many of the scientists studying the new virus. Science is shown as being a very human affair, a far cry indeed from the straightforward sf of old; and the big intuitive leaps are shown to be as much about individual initiative as any form of scientific method.

If the three main characters don't come across as marvels of literary engineering they are at least sympathetic and work well together to advance the narrative - as in all of Bear's novels. What is chilling, and had me reaching for my copy of Sagan's brilliant The Demon-Haunted World, was the ignorance, fear and reactionary responses of the general public, which in the light of AIDS seem all too depressingly accurate. SF or not, definitely worth reading.

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk