Thursday, June 6, 2013

Evolution - Stephen Baxter

    2003; 646 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Human evolution?  Yeah, I know all about it.  Before we were “us”, we were cavemen.  Before that, we were apes or gorillas or something.  And before that we were monkeys.

    No wait, that’s not it.  Somewhere along the way we split off from the apes.  Before they became gorillas.  And monkeys came after that.  So did the Neanderthals.

    No, that’s not it either.  Tell you what.  Let’s read Evolution, and then we’ll have a much better grasp of how we got from the way-back-when to the here-and-now.

What’s To Like...
    Stephen Baxter opts to start with the first primates, lemur-like creatures that lived 65 million years ago.  That’s a good choice, as this allows him to bring in dinosaurs and the comet that wiped them out.  The initial ancestor, dubbed Purga, is from a species called purgatorius, which you can read about in Wikipedia (here).

     The first third of Evolution deals with the primates; the next half deals with the hominids; and in the final couple of chapters Baxter hypothesizes on where we’re going evolution-wise.  You meet a new character with each jump through time, so in effect this is a series of short stories.  The pressure is on the author to make each one unique and entertaining, while introducing a short-term character that you’ll quickly bond with.  He succeeds marvelously.

    For me, the high point is the critter-killing comet, and it is spectacular how Baxter gives you a feel for being on Earth when the upheaval hits.  The blast may have wiped out 90% of all life, but 10% did survive, and it is fun to read just how those lucky few may have managed to beat the odds.

    Each subsequent chapter introduces a new step in the evolutionary trail, along with an important new event or discovery.  Examples : bipedalism; tool-making; religion, etc.  Baxter also spends time explaining (speculating, actually) how the brain evolved and functioned differently at each step along the way.  I was completely captivated. 

    For the most part, Evolution is not science fiction.  There are no invaders from outer space or wookies piloting starships.  Also, there’s a lot of mating going on.  This fits nicely with the subject matter, but if references to genitalia bother you, you might want to give this a pass. 

Kewlest New Word...
Etiolated (adj.) : Feeble; having lost vigor or substance.

     “You know, even after a couple of centuries’ work, we have dug up no more than two thousand individuals from our prehistory: two thousand people, that’s all, from all the billions who went before us into the dark.  And from that handful of bones we have had to try to infer the whole tangled history of mankind and all the precursor species, all the way back to what happened to our line after the dinosaur-killer comet.”  And yet, she thought wistfully, lacking a time machine, the patient labor of archaeology was all there was, the only window into the past.  (pg. 5)

    She took the thrower from him, set the spear in its notch, and made as if to throw.  “Hand, throw, no,” she said.  Now she mimed the stick pushing the spear.  “Stick, throw.  Yes, yes.  Stick.  Throw.  Spear.  Stick throw spear.  Stick throw spear...”
    Stick throw spear.  It wasn’t much of a sentence.  But it had a rudimentary structure – subject, verb, object – and the honor of being one of the first sentences spoken in any human language, anywhere in the world.  (pg. 336)

“In the clearing, dinosaurs dreamed.”  (pg. 11)
    There are two sobering truths I took away from reading Evolution.  First, we humans may be the epitome of evolution, but the process will continue.  Second, it is inevitable that there will come a day when we are knocked off (or knock ourselves off) the top of the predatory food-chain.  The last part of Evolution speculates as to how this might play out.  It is rather grim and humbling, but then again, we go to KFC and munch on  the glory that was once the dinosaurs.

    The quibbles are miniscule.  Stephen Baxter gets preachy for a few paragraphs towards the end, and I still haven’t grasped the purpose/meaning of the epilogue.   But these are a half dozen pages of so-so in 640 pages of fantastic.  The excellence overwhelms.

    9½ Stars.  Evolution is akin to Jean Auel’s The Clan Of The Cave Bear, but much more epic in scope.  If you enjoyed TCotCB (don’t get me started on the rest of that series), this novel is going to suck you in.  Ditto if you’re the type of person that goes to the Smithsonian and spends 95% of your time in the hall where the dinosaur skeletons are.

No comments: