I don’t generally read Mr. Bear’s science fiction novels, but I was at a recent library book sale and picked up this futuristic tale of a generation of mutated children. I was at a disadvantage because I hadn’t read the first novel, Darwin’s Radio, but I plowed ahead anyway.
A terrible virus called SHRV has infected many pregnant mothers. Their offspring are smart, tall, and use their freckles to communicate with one another. They also have acute hearing and identify each other by smell. Several of the mothers became dangerous virus carriers, unleashing scores of ancient diseases. This caused the children to be taken from their families and placed in “instructional institutions” as they might pose a threat to “normal” people.
This novel follows one child, Stella, at ages 12, 15, and 18 as she’s hidden by her parents, taken by the government “for her own safety,” and placed in a former prison with thousands of kids like her. They have their own freckle language, are susceptible to adult viruses, and just want to be left alone.
The scary part of this book is the avarice and fearmongering of the government and the people in charge of “public safety” (and the amount of money they receive for their efforts). It’s a little like the times we are living in now with our government telling us they’re doing things in our best interest. Stopping immigration, removing poverty programs, and not taxing the rich are all supposed to be in our “best interests.” It’s depressing. I can’t believe the book was written twenty years ago.
Mr. Bear’s writing is dense. He knows a lot about evolution and Darwin and isn’t afraid to share. He likes to use a lot of characters to move the story along, and sometimes I lost track of who was who. At the center of the plot is poor Stella and her parents, who are trying to rescue their daughter by going through official channels. There has never been any evidence the children are carriers of any kind, although the adults can infect and kill them with moderate infections. The treatment and imprisonment of the kids reminded me too much of immigrant kids being kept in cages.
Stella’s father is an archeologist who discovers a tribe of prehistoric humans in Oregon, homo erectus and homo sapiens, working and living together. This seems to be a metaphor for humans and SHEVA humans living together, and by the time Stella runs aways to a commune and has a baby, things have calmed down between the old humans and the new ones.
Skim over the heavy science (unless you’re working on your thesis) and follow poor Stella as she learns to cope with her situation. I’m not sure she actually does anything to improve her situation, but the story is about man’s inhumanity to man and what happens when someone different appears. Again, sounds frighteningly familiar.