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The Reviews :: Evolution
Reviewed by Ché Monro

Evolution is the story of human evolution from the time of the dinosaurs to the present day and beyond. Stephen Baxter takes his science fiction on another foray into the world of biology, telling the stories of individual animals and proto-humans who were the mothers and fathers of mankind. It's a spectacular tale with crashing comets, giant dinosaurs, narrow escapes, transcontinental voyages and moments of intellectual discovery.

Baxter has been described as the new Arthur C Clarke, with some justice. In this novel he visits the important moments of the story of humanity, exploring his ideas of what happened to the Neanderthals, how art and religion developed and the effect of agriculture on human society. It’s a tale of great triumphs and tragedies. His ultimate vision of human destiny on Earth is a cautionary tale, but a believable one. The novel takes the form of a series of linked short stories, which is necessary because of the timescale of the story – which takes place over more than 100 million years. No one individual could possibly live this long, so instead Baxter tells a story about one individual before jumping down the time stream to examine the lives of their distant descendants.

This book will be useful to you if you wonder about the mechanics of the human condition and how it relates to our former, animal state: If you've ever wondered why people form themselves into male dominated hierarchies, or what effect (if any) evolution has had on the human race since we began to dominate our own environment then Baxter has some interesting ideas for you. If on the other hand you just like good storytelling and cuddly furry creatures then this is definitely the book you've been looking for.

One of the things I found fascinating was Baxter’s explanation of how living creatures handle disasters. Life has had a rather tenuous hold on planet Earth at times, there have been many mass extinction events like the one which wiped out the dinosaurs, and some of these are examined in Evolution. It’s fascinating to realize how disastrous conditions can become normal in the course of a single generation as all knowledge of what life was like before the disaster is wiped out. A single generation can be a very short period of time – especially during an extinction event when lifetimes may be very short indeed. If no individual lives long enough to survive the entire course of a disaster then their descendants may not even realize that a disaster is going on, or that what is happening is unusual. This may help to explain how civilizations like the Minoan vanished without any explanation about what happened.

An obvious word of caution for those who believe in a religious explanation for the creation of the world and humanity: Baxter follows the scientific Darwinian explanation for human existence – obvious enough in a work titled Evolution.

Evolution has some interesting things to say about human nature and destiny, and it paints a fascinating, if speculative, portrait of our past. It's informative entertaining, and educational without being a textbook.

I enjoyed this, what else can I try?

It’s fascinating to watch SF’s move into biology. Genetic engineering and the possibilities of biological manipulation are the new spaceships and ray guns.

Stephen Baxter's recent books have been full of the themes of human evolution. I recommend Coalescent and Origin. You may also like the work of Greg Egan, in particular Luminous and Tangents. Baxter isn't the only one to write about dinosaus - try Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear.

Author: Stephen Baxter

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