This book received Nebula and
John W. Campbell awards. It also seems to appeal to many hard SF readers.
Personally, I found the central premise of the book to be hard to believe (but
please be aware I don't claim to be an expert on this subject). Those who are
not as picky as I am will probably enjoy it.
The story builds from three
subplots which eventually set the basis for an epidemic thriller plot. The
subplots are the investigation of mass graves in former-Soviet republics,
discovery in an ice cave of mummified bodies of a Neanderthal couple with a
not-so-Neanderthal baby, and a wave of miscarriages followed by unusual
As more is learned,
scientists find there is a retrovirus (dubbed "SHEVA") involved in
the miscarriages. As the sense of an epidemic rises, increasing measures are
taken to try to control the situation. We also see the mood and reactions of a
panicked populace. Also, pregnant women struggle with their feelings whether
they should bring the mutant fetuses to term.
Our plot begins to shift from
purely epidemic thriller as the principle characters from the original three
subplots begin to build a different picture of what is happening. The general
panic does not disappear, but the direction the reader is being guided in is not
a race to cure a disease.
Both the view of medical
research and of society dealing with crisis will appeal to some readers. The
book is certainly well-written.
Notes on my concerns:
Perhaps, the following
comments would affect one's experience of reading the book - if you have not
yet done so, but intend to. Consider before reading further.
In the book, women start
having miscarriages. Then, without needing to have sex, they become pregnant
with mutant fetuses. The premise is: this results from genetic coding in
what's traditionally called our "junk DNA". Supposedly, once in a
great while our DNA somehow "decides" a species needs to test out
some new genetic prototypes. Most of these "experiments" fail, but
by making most pregnancies produce prototypes there are many variants. Out of
many prototypes, a few successes will result and flourish in later generations.
Evolutionary scientists now
view the evolutionary process as less smooth, and more "punctuated"
with periodic bursts. To the best of my knowledge they don't attribute the
burst to anything resembling this.
The book seems to suggest a
very elaborate and sophisticated secondary system in our DNA. Somehow, DNA
detects some factors make this a good era for genetic experiments. Somehow,
retroviruses hidden in our junk DNA are released, causing widespread
miscarriages. Somehow, "immaculate conceptions" with non-random
prototype mutations begin. Somehow, our DNA has developed certain prototypes
to try out. Somehow, each fetus gets some prototype elements while other
fetuses receive other changes.
That's a complex process
requiring complex genetic programming. It presumably didn't first evolve on
this scale with humans. But does history record any similar events affecting
any species of animal or plant?
How would a species as a
group decide it was a good era for experimentation?
How would a species determine
what prototypes were worth trying out?
How would the various test
changes be doled out to different fetuses?
If such a system ever arose,
normal natural selection wouldn't reinforce keeping it. The book says these
genetic experiments occur thousands of years apart. For pre-human animals this
could mean thousands of generations between mutation events. In all those
generations, there is no positive feedback to make those whose DNA carries this
system intact to be preferred over those whose DNA does not. Yes, junk DNA is
thought to change slower than active genes. However, this is a complex system
requiring a large number of genetic parts - and a large number of generations
in which a few of those parts might change.
One might argue that having a
batch of mutations at a time of change would allow those with the system to
survive transition periods, while species or family trees within a species
without it could become extinct. On the other hand, it might work the other
way. Suppose you have a small population (that's normal when one species
branches off from another, as well as other times). If one of these mutation
events happens, the species loses all of the pregnancies that have begun
according to evolved mate selection. Instead, the females have mutant pregnancies.
Most of those mutants will be less successful. Therefore, there's a serious
drop in the population. Some of the less-successful mutant young live and
occupy the mothers nurturing them. Some less-successful mutants live to
adulthood and temporarily add some inferior genes to the gene pool. Some
species would never recover from this event.