All this suggests that I might be a bit skeptical when a novel
titles itself EVOLUTION and bills itself as a story that
encompasses the remote past and the deep future. In a series
of stunning tableaux, Baxter grafts the flesh and blood of the
storyteller onto the dessicated bones of evolutionary
history. The reader experiences the struggles of various
dinosaurs and the
early proto-mammals that lived in their shadow, and the coming of a great comet whose impact in the Caribbean causes a mass extinction that eventually sweeps up all the unfortunate saurians in its wake. The reader sees the flourishing of the mammals and their increases in size and cerebral complexity as the earth undergoes millions of years of ice ages and interglacials. The reader witnesses the emergence of primates on the savanna of equatorial Africa and the slow transformation of these gracile creatures into hominids who develop rudimentary language and a culture of bonding together. Next is the great hominid diaspora to the other continents and the ultimate showdown between Neanderthals and modern man. Finally, the entire planet falls under the sway of homo technologicus as another mass extinction begins to take place - an unintended consequence of man's dominance over the rest of life. In all these set pieces, the science is sound but not overwhelming. By zeroing in on key transitional moments in time and dramatizing them, Baxter forces us to ponder the characterizations, both good and bad, that place us recently triumphant in the great chain of being.
While details differ, the motive force behind many of these evolutionary snapshots remains the same. In the words of Solly Zuckerman in THE SOCIAL LIVES OF MONKEYS AND APES, he writes "The social relations of all mammals are determined primarily by the physiology of reproduction." Baxter persuades the reader of this through his deft ability to re-imagine how the urge to continue the gene pool has always asserted its influence, an influence sometimes masked by the cultural overlay we call civilization.
The last fifth of this long novel carries the narrative into the far future and takes evolution off the planet and outside the realm of the strictly biological. This is fascinating but not as convincing as is the dramatized histories. Extrapolation is the mind's telescope, while interpolation is the mind's microscope. The vastness of the universe prohibits the telescope's ultimate sharp resolution, whereas the intimacy of the microscope encourages the testing of inconvenient theories. Perhaps more simply stated - we can know more and more details of the past as we perfect our instruments and perspective. The future is a very different and more frustrating beast.
Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document: