Death, dark goddesses and urban folk religion are some of the common themes among the books reviewed this month…
(Gollancz; New Ed edition 2003)
Every culture has some sort of origin myth; the story of where their people came from and what makes them special. In this book, Stephen Baxter attempts to tell perhaps the grandest origin story of all – the tale of the rise, and ultimate destiny, of the entire human race.
Evolution is a hard sci-fi novel spanning 600 million years, chronicling the development of humans from simple proto-primates who lived alongside dinosaurs, all the way to our distant descendants. There’s a big jump between the Roman era and the near future, which is important: by basing his story on the scanty remains of prehistory and speculations about the unknown future, Baxter gives himself room to exercise a lot of creative freedom. While Evolution is based on quality palaeontological and archaeological research, it never loses sight of the fact that it is science fiction, and as such there are plenty of surprises in there even for readers with a good knowledge of Earth’s evolutionary history.
Another tactic employed by Baxter to transform what would otherwise be a tedious account of the laborious process of evolution into an exciting epic is to tell personal stories. At every stage of human evolution in the book, we follow the hardships and successes of a particular individual (who, even at their most primitive, is always given a name). Baxter’s skill as a storyteller means that we find ourselves emotional invested in every character we come across, even the shrew-like Purgatorius creatures at the novel’s beginning who have little of the complexity of their later descendants. We share in their successes and, more often than not, their struggles. While there is a little repetition of these stories, particularly in those of earlier human ancestors, they are still unique and intriguing enough to sustain interest throughout this long book. My absolute favourite part of Evolution was reading the story of an individual named “Mother” living in the Sahara 60,000 years ago, who is perhaps the first Homo sapiens to truly think like a modern human. Not only is Mother’s character one of the most complex in Evolution, but this part of the story touched on the development of language, art and religion. Baxter’s interpretation the rise of abstract thought in this manner is fascinating.
Many have criticised Evolution as a depressing read. And it’s certainly true that Baxter portrays humans for what we are: animals, and highly successful ones, whose success comes partly from our ability to kill and dominate. Gang rape, infanticide, genocide and slavery are routine occurrences in this story, and one could say that Baxter’s outlook of humanity is bleak. But there is an added level of complexity here: all the brutalities committed by humans and their ancestors have a cold but undeniable logic to them. On many occasions, the atrocities are key to human evolution. When you think about it, most origin stories and creation myths told by humans tend to be bloody and brutal; it seems only natural that one based on science would be similar. What’s more, there is a sense of triumph that, despite all the hardships our characters face from nature and from their fellow species, they manage to survive and procreate, allowing the story of the human race to continue.
So why have I chosen to include this novel, rooted very firmly in science without a shred of mysticism, in my Pagan & Spiritual book reviews? Firstly, because it’s a book that, like religion, tackles the Big Questions – where did we come from, why do we do the things we do, and where are we going? Secondly, Pagans in particular often take an interest in the history of early man and our relationship with nature, which explored in depth here (although any Pagans who take a more romanticised view of this may be in for a shock). Thirdly, Pagans are probably going to appreciate one of the key messages Evolution expresses: that mutual cooperation, both with our fellow man and the natural world, is essential to our survival as a species. And finally, because I see Evolution as a universal origin story – an epic based on scientific research that unites the whole human race, emphasising not merely our savage nature but also our ingenuity, cooperation, curiosity, tenderness for those we love, and ability to survive despite outrageous odds against us.