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Evolution
Stephen Baxter
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Evolution begins with an ancient, scurrying primate progenitor at the time of the dinosaurs' demise and works its way through humanity's family tree. The afterword, 762 pages later, reminds the reader that this is a novel - but it is closer to a fable, a myth cycle, a scientifically plausible dream of history before history.
   It is a difficult tale to tell. The material, near infinitely plastic over evolutionary time, does not mould well as the stuff of story. The method Baxter has chosen to handle his vast canvas is to highlight the tales of individuals over the course of several hundred million years. In each chapter, an archetype is given a name and a personality, but for most of mammalian history, as the author makes plain, there is no sense of self and the ability to comprehend the passing of time is virtually absent. Hence, the stories occasionally feel contrived, the critical moment foreshadowed to build a sense of suspense in the reader that is absent for the 'actors'. Much of the book is written as an extended nature documentary and the eventual emergence of language is a huge relief; the characters can present themselves and the book switches to a less forced form of fiction.
   If creating narrative from the stuff of evolution is difficult, Baxter makes painting the scenery seem easy. Dinosaurs are sufficiently familiar to a modern audience that he can play with them, reinforcing imagery or suggesting that the fossil record is, inevitably, incomplete. Whilst it is almost impossible to truly envision land creatures weighing tens of tons, Baxter carries us along with his vivid descriptions. Strangely, times less remote than the Cretaceous hold creatures more exotic to our eyes than the dinosaurs. Baxter occasionally struggles to describe the creatures of plains and forests in the mammalian era. There is no visual shorthand for such beings as the short-nosed ancestors of the mammoth or the first members of the horse family. Baxter is often drawn to abbreviating scientific names to avoid overwhelming the reader with unwieldy terminology. He tries valiantly to draw out the genuine originality of the radiation of mammal types rather than succumb to the temptation of viewing the incredible diversity as temporal variations on tropical wilderness.
   Evolution has much wonder and never becomes didactic but there is little to identify with. While the lives of individuals are skilfully presented, Baxter is aiming to make us see how huge the big picture really is. Inevitably, this has lead to comparisons with Stapledon but Baxter avoids engaging with God, with the idea that there may be a guiding force. The anthropic impulse to believe that we must be here for a reason is refuted by raw examples of how humanity actually came to be, of how our ancestors invented their gods. Intelligence, from an evolutionary perspective, is presented as just one strategy for genes to be passed on. The Class Mammalia is one amongst many, human intelligence a mere lucky throw of the dice for one brief period on one tiny planet.
Evolution by Stephen Baxter

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