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I read a lot of novels, but so far haven't written about any of them on dooyoo because I've never been very confident with book reviews. However, I have just finished 'Evolution' by Stephen Baxter and felt compelled to introduce this sci-fi author to anyone who hasn't yet discovered his writing.
I don't read much sci-fi so I won't be able to give you any personal comparisons, though Stephen Baxter is compared to Arthur C. Clarke pretty much every time his name is mentioned. I've always thought that sci-fi is a genre I should like - I read the occasional popular science book and watch plenty of science documentaries - but most leaves me cold. I fell in love with Stephen Baxter's brand of hard sci-fi when I read his book 'Time', and look forward to reading more by this great, adventurous author. This is a man who knows his stuff - his books are dripping in science - and he isn't afraid to share it with us.
Evolution is like no other book I've ever read. As the title suggests, Baxter sets out to dramatise the history - and the possible future - of the human evolutionary line starting 65 million years ago, when our rodent-like ancestors lived alongside the last of the dinosaurs. We end the story many millions of years in the future, where Baxter shows us that he is not just a master of scientific fact, but he has one heck of an imagination too.
The story is told in a series of short stories, with each jumping thousands or millions of years forward in time. In the afterword, Baxter explains that much of his book is based on hypothetical ideas in the field and anyone who takes a passing interest in human evolutionary history will find much that is familiar. The subject matter is actually a departure for the author - I believe that his background is in physics - but he has obviously researched the field thoroughly for this book. It is not all dry fact though. Baxter plays lots of speculative games and brings to life imaginary species. Usually he makes it clear that these are flights of fancy, for example by explaining in the narrative that this species was never found by humans in the fossil record. I found this to be a clever device to keep the authenticity of the story.
Remarkably, most of these short stories manage to be compelling once you've adjusted to the jump. There is also a frame story set in 2031 that we begin and end the story with and visit a few times during the narrative, with characters and a slightly futuristic society that nevertheless feels familiar. This allows us to put our feet on the ground and remember that this story is about us.
This novel is a massive undertaking, and many problems present themselves. For example, how can you keep individuals in the stories straight in the millennia before our ancestors started giving each other names? How can you keep the reader's interest in a character whose brain is about as sophisticated as a rat's, without too much anthropomorphism? How can you explain the shifting of the continents and the long-view of history when your viewpoint characters have no understanding of life beyond the functions of sex, food and death, and certainly have no sense of self? While at times the devices Baxter uses to solve these problems can throw you out of the story, I think it's as elegantly done as any writer could manage. It's testament to the author that I did grow to care about Purga and Noth among others, and felt genuinely sad when their stories were over.
The sex, food and death angle is heavily played during the first third of the novel, and at times I thought that my stomach wasn't going to be strong enough for all the maggot-eating and excrement-flinging! I stuck with it though because I really wanted to read this book. If you're very squeamish, this book probably isn't for you!
I think we look to fiction to make sense of the questions we have - whether it's reading romance to understand how love can exist in our cynical times, or exploring sticky moral questions through modern literature. They may not have the answers, but a good writer can present our fears and confusions in a way that untangles the issues in our minds. And of course the questions that sci-fi seeks to explore are those to do with science. I don't think at all that we should place limits on scientific inquiry, but it's true that our growing understanding of the universe brings fear along with awe. Our sun is going to expand, burn up the earth and eventually die. And even if we manage to set ourselves up on some distant planet, it's possible that one day our entire universe will cease to exist. The human race is not going to be around forever, and what's it all about if at some point the earth is going to swallow up every trace we ever existed, or the universe collapses into another singularity? How do we live? How do we not go insane!? If it all amounts to nothing, what do we do anything for?
One of the things I love about Stephen Baxter is his willingness to confront the eventual problems the human race will face if we survive long enough to see them. We don't like to think about these realities and it's hard to find a happy ending when you're telling a story on this sort of scope. Baxter doesn't cheat though - this is the purest form of sci-fi, I think - and he manages to present a satisfying closure to the human story, a sort of poetry that stays with you when our narrator looks back over the millions of years of primate history and our last descendant closes her eyes for the final time. Closing this book after 750 densely-written pages, the questions of 'what's it all about?' or 'why are we here?' seem insignificant. Like the feeling you get when you stare up at the stars - that of being so small at the same time as being so integral to everything - Baxter's dramatisation of human evolution transcends these questions, transcends the electrical connections in our brains that we call 'self' and makes you stand back in awe that we are even here, that we can even witness and understand to any extent what we are part of. Just thinking about it makes my heart beat faster.
This is not a book for everyone, I admit. Baxter speculates quite convincingly on the origin of superstition and myth and why the ability to believe (in its broader meaning) has been an evolutionary advantage, and this will obviously leave some people cold. It will be too heavy on the facts for others. If you like hard sci-fi based in real science, though, and want to get lost in a big doorstopper of a book, I can recommend Evolution. It's more accessible than I've probably made it sound - and Evolution is certainly more accessible than the physics-heavy 'Manifold' series. It's an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking that for the most part succeeds, and it's one heck of a journey.
With such a subject matter, how could it not be?