Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Stephen Baxter


Stephen Baxter isn't doing anything by halves in Evolution. The story spans millions of years, from 145 million years ago on the continent of Panagea to the far future. More or less each chapter deals with a different period, so of course it's not focused on a certain group of people. Instead it's the story of the whole of humanity, from our origins in the distant past to our ultimate destiny as a species.

The narrative begins in 2031 as a group of scientists head for a conference in Australia. In the shadow of a bubbling and fuming volcano they're preparing for a last-ditch effort to avert more of the extinctions caused by mankind.

Evolution puts all of these extinctions into context, as Baxter begins with the downfall of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Through the eyes of Purga, a tiny primate who looks a little like a squirrel, we see the comet that may have killed them, and the devastating effect it had on the environment. This book reads a lot like a natural history documentary on the Discovery channel. It's full of facts and details that explain what's going on, which creatures were alive and how the climate and environment were changing during each period. None of this is superfluous or dry, however. It's all spiced up by the stories of the primates, proto-humans, and eventually the true humans. Although each chapter is fairly short (averaging around 40 pages), it's long enough for characters that readers will care about to spring to life. It's more than just a series of snapshots.

Stephen Baxter really drives home how precarious our existence was at some points during prehistory, how it hung on a knife edge. Nothing was inevitable about the eventual rise of homo sapiens. After reading this, you won't look at cute, fluffy rodents the same way again.

Another astonishing revelation is the mass extinctions that have been going on since mankind's rise. Most people think of the dodo, the mammoth, the sabre-tooth tiger, and perhaps a few others when considering the more recent extinctions on Earth. But Evolution emphasises just how much more has been lost since the arrival of true humans. So many creatures have been wiped out that it's hard to picture just how rich the world was, and how much has simply been forgotten. This is an eye-opening novel that should whet anyone's appetite for palaeontology.

The author finishes with some chapters about the future evolution of mankind, and further adaptations people might make to a changing planet. Some of this is a little too speculative, and perhaps inevitably it's less credible than the earlier chapters. But on the whole this is a tremendously well-researched novel that offers a fascinating insight into how evolution might have worked in practice, from the point of view of individuals.

Book Details

Year: 2002

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson