13 January 2008

Writing on Reading: Darwin's Radio

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear won the Nebula and Endeavour awards in 2000 for best novel, and was also nominated for a Hugo that year (a Deepness in the Sky by  Vernor Vinge won). Given its prestigious pedigree, a lowly writer/editor like me is really in no position to criticize, yet . . .

Darwin's Radio is centered around an innovate idea supported by impressive scientific research. The basic premise is that our DNA contains secret codes that allow for a major evolutionary change to the species under certain conditions. When that change starts happening, the scientific community and the government do not know how to handle it.

The first half to three quarters of the book is more focused on the science than on character or plot development. If I had a science background (or perhaps paid more attention in college biology and anthropology classes) the exploration of these theories may have been enough to keep me entertained, but it wasn't. At certain points, I had to resist the temptation to give up on the book. I wasn't invested enough in the plot or characters early enough in the novel. 

In fact, that leads to my major criticism of the novel. It seemed like the characters were invented to support the exploration of the science, rather than having true depth and believability. At one point in the story, the protagonists describe their own "thumbnails":

Mitch: "I know very little microbiology, barely enough to get along. I stumbled onto something wonderful, and it almost ruined my life. I'm disreputable, known to be eccentric, a two-time loser in the science game. . . ."

Chris: "I've chased diseases over half the Earth. I have a feel for how they spread, what they do, how they work. . . . Up until recently, I've tried to lead a double life, tried to believe two contradictory things at once, and I can't do it anymore."

Kaye: "I'm an insecure female research scientist who wants to be kept out of all the dirty little details, so I cling to anybody who'll give me a place to work and protect me . . . and now it's time to be independent and make my own decisions. Time to grow up." 

While these character sketches are by no means boring, they still feel contrived. I don't think characters should have enough self-awareness to describe their own role in a novel. Throughout the book, I felt I was reading the author's idea about how these characters might act rather than reading about "real" people.

For the most part, the writing quality was good. However, at times the dialogue felt stilted and contrived. For example:

"We are not wrong," Kaye said. "Be my man."

"I am your man."

"Do you love me?"

"I love you in ways I've never felt before."

"So fast. That's incredible." . . .

(Mitch) "The air feels very thin where we are, [sic] right now."

"Like being on a mountain," Kay said.

"I don't like mountains much," Mitch said.

"Oh, I do," Kaye said. . . . "They give you freedom."

"Yeah," Mitch said. "you jump off, and you get ten thousand feet of pure freedom."

To be fair, some of this dialogue refers to past discussions, so it is not quite as strange as it sounds out of context. However, I still can't imagine a real conversation that sounds like this.

Darwin's Radio, with its many accolades, must have resinated with lots of people. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to tune in to the book as much as I would have liked.


lesleylsmith said...

Thanks for the comments, D.
What's resinated? :) Made into resin?
I might have to reread this to see if I agree with you.
I recently read 'Time and Again' by Simak and I have to say I was NOT impressed. It's so dated and it's practically all exposition. Is this the book you were recommending earlier?

David E. Hughes said...

I think Time and Again was the book I was thinking of. Is it the one with the old black and white photos of New York? It has been a few years, but I remember really liking it. It resinated with me. : )