Bear’s premise is cerebral, original, and terrifying! Human evolution is undergoing a massive leap forward due to the re-awakening of a long dormant endogenous retrovirus, nicknamed SHEVA. When the new “plague” appears to cause miscarriage in pregnant women, the U.S. government and public panic. Further scientific investigation reveals the fetus itself ovulates, releases its egg into the mother’s uterus, the woman becomes pregnant a second time, and eventually gives birth to a mutated and deformed baby with an extra 6 chromosomes. Wow… and ewww…
The science feels plausible, in part because of the highly technical language used in the first half of the novel, which is is heavy on the exposition and light on suspense. All main characters are scientists of some kind, including Kaye Lang, a recently widowed biologist with knowledge of human endogenous retroviruses, and Mitch Rafelson, a disgraced anthropologist who has found surprising prehistoric remains in the Alps that suggest something like SHEVA. These two characters come together to bring the personal dimension to the forefront in the second half. Kaye herself is an complex lead, who justifies her emotional needs with scientific progress, and I find myself disagreeing with her on most decisions.
Most reviewers I’ve read prefer the character-centric parts of the book, but I love the mystery of the science, and the methods by which these two and others engage with colleagues, and perform their own research, all in order to find the mechanism of the new disease. The scientific community itself devolves into very distinct camps over what is really happening. Mix in the politics of CDC’s work to find a vaccine and the government’s proposal to hand out RU486, it’s no wonder the public refuses to think of SHEVA as anything other than a disease. It’s a tragic story that could actually happen in a fear-mongering society that distrusts science (i.e. climate, GMOs, vaccinations, etc.).
Recommended for fans of hard scifi, biology, anthropology, genetics, psychology, and/or X-men-ish origins ready for a slow paced epidemic thriller. Not recommended for anyone currently pregnant.
“Too much change,” Mitch said thoughtfully. “Everyone hates it, but we have to compete or we end up out on the streets.”