Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Evolution by Stephen Baxter (2003)

Paperback cover blurb

Stretching from the distant past into the remote future, from primordial Earth to the stars, Evolution is a soaring symphony of struggle, extinction, and survival; a dazzling epic that combines a dozen scientific disciplines and a cast of unforgettable characters to convey the grand drama of evolution in all its awesome majesty and rigorous beauty.

Sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, there lived a small mammal, a proto-primate of the species Purgatorius. From this humble beginning, Baxter traces the human lineage forward through time. The adventure that unfolds is a gripping odyssey governed by chance and competition, a perilous journey to an uncertain destination along a route beset by sudden and catastrophic upheavals. It is a route that ends, for most species, in stagnation or extinction. Why should humanity escape this fate?

My thoughts

The title is the plot. Evolution is the story of human evolution, starting with the "proto-primate," Purgatorius, and ending with our distant descendant some 500 million years in the future, told from the point of view of the creatures who live it. Each chapter is essentially a story in itself, making the book an anthology more along the lines of The Martian Chronicles than a straightforward novel.

In some ways Evolution is the ultimate paleontological fantasy. I can't think of a single work that has spanned such a large frame of time, or crammed such a large array of extinct critters between its covers. There are flaws, though.

It starts out quite good, with our first protagonist – a tiny little mammal named Purga – surviving the comet strike the killed off the dinosaurs. Baxter then climbs up the evolutionary ladder until he reaches modern Homo sapiens. There are a few interesting detours along the way, such as a step back to the Jurassic for a story about intelligent dinosaurs, or a trip to Antarctica before it was covered in ice, but mostly it follows the development of humanity.

There is a certain grandeur in watching our ancestors slowly gain intelligence, but at 600-pages-plus, the book is a long read and the stories grow repetitive in plot. Each chapter seems to focus on an outcast human ancestor who, at the very end, makes a major breakthrough leading to the next stage of evolution. Anyone who has slogged through to the end will be awarded with the most enjoyable part of the novel, where, in the last 100 pages, Baxter speculates what evolution has in store for humanity's future, and his vision isn't encouraging.


  • Baxter is turning into a prolific author of paleo-fiction. The British writer also has penned the Mammoth trilogy, a series of Watership Down-like works about mammoths surviving to the modern day. Two of his novels in the Manifold trilogy touch on the subject, especially Manifold: Origin, in which the moon is replaced by a red planet populated with humanity’s ancestors.
  • The dinosaurs in Evolution are cold-blooded, a reversal of the warm-blooded trend that’s dominated dinosaur fiction since the early-to-mid 1980s.

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