Our experiences with the COVID pandemic and our societies’ policy responses to it sparked memories of Greg Bear’s award-winning duology, Darwin’s Radio (Del Rey, 1999, Nebula Award, 2000) and Darwin’s Children (Del Rey, 2003), so I reread them over the holidays. Twenty years ago, Bear wrote about the emergence of a new virus that initially caused pregnant women in stable monogamous relationships to miscarry. Virologist Dr. Kaye Lang identified the cause as a Human Endogenous Retrovirus (HERV), a virus lodged within humanity’s genome. Meanwhile, discredited archeologist Mitch Rafelson discovered mummified Neanderthal remains with a Homo Sapiens child in the Alps. An examination of the mummies detected the same retrovirus in their cells and determined that the Neanderthals were the child’s genetic parents, prompting the conclusion that the virus may have stimulated the transition of humanity from Neanderthal to modern Homo Sapiens.
As the virus spread, fear of another AIDS epidemic grew. Big Pharma, represented by Americol CEO Marge Cross, mobilized her company’s research personnel, hired Dr. Lang to help develop a vaccine, and connected with senior Centers for Disease Control (CDC) official Mark Augustine to sync her company’s efforts with government health priorities. The press, sensing opportunity, ran stories that the massive number of miscarriages possibly signaled the end of humanity. While the CDC named the virus SHEVA (Scattered Human Endogenous Retrovirus Activation), a homophone for the Hindu god, Shiva, one of whose attributes is “the Destroyer,” the populace began to call it “Herod’s Flu.”
However, the miscarriages are just a precursor leading to new pregnancies, in which the mothers grow extra skin around their necks and ears that are labeled “cowls.” The infants that are born have the same features and other differences. Violence against pregnant women escalates as spouses and partners level accusations of infidelity. Fear, fed by the media and government statements, prompt imposition of draconian government measures to stop the spread of the virus and respond to unrest after a Senator assassinates the President by suicide bomb in the White House Situation Room and riots ensue. Martial law is declared inWashington, D.C., the National Guard is mobilized, and the capital becomes a fortified bastion, surrounded by checkpoints through which only “authorized” persons may pass. The government also suspends Habeus Corpus rights for anyone that acquires the virus and their children, and the overbearing security measures suppress the economy into a multi-year recession.
Lang and Rafelson meet, falling in love, and conceive a “virus child,” but must flee across the country as the government pursues every pregnant citizen, hoping to stem the spread of the “disease.” Eventually, Lang gives birth to their daughter on an Indian Reservation, which is outside Federal authority. In the second book, the CDC’s Emergency Action Group, commissioned by the government with unlimited authority and budget to round up “virus children” and impound them in special isolated “schools,” first attempts to kidnap Lang’s and Rafelson’s daughter, Stella Nova, via a bounty hunter. Although Lang and Rafelson luckily rescue their daughter from what reads eerily like a human trafficking incident, EA special police track them down, seize the girl, and arrest her parents.
During the police operation, Rafelson survives a gunshot wound when an officer mistakenly perceives the piece of firewood in Rafelson’s hand as a gun. Afterwards, he is falsely convicted of assaulting a police officer with a gun and sentenced to time in a federal penitentiary.
Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of children interned in Emergency Action schools suffer near complete isolation from their parents, incessant degrading medical attention, and relentless indoctrination to become “human.” As the general public became aware that the “virus children” might represent that next phase of humanity, schools are attacked and torched, killing hundreds of children. In one school, corrupt management sells all the medical supplies and when a viral epidemic spreads through the children, hundreds die for lack of medicine. In the same school, big Pharma researchers on the staff autopsy and vivisect deceased children, saving and cataloging their tissues for further study. The school never notifies parents of their children’s deaths, nor returns their bodies for burial.
Science Fiction and fantasy have always been my favorite novel genres, not only because they transport the reader from the mundanity of everyday life into fantastic worlds and environments that inspire the imagination, but also because the stories and characters often compellingly address familiar real-life themes in unexpected and innovative ways. Rereading science fiction novels provides the added enjoyment of rating the author’s foresight against current events.
Bear’s vision of the descent of American democracy into authoritarianism through manipulation of a public health event is bone-chillingly near our COVID-19 experience. We have witnessed fearmongering through misinformation and disinformation by public officials and the press on an unprecedented scale, coupled with active censorship of fact-based reporting that contradicted official narratives. State and local government leaders that refused to tow the politically correct line were labeled failures, while the incompetent officials who increased the death toll in their localities by orders of magnitude went uncriticized.
Widespread lockdowns forced the economy into a severe recession, closing businesses and killing thousands of jobs, many forever. Closed schools cost children irreplaceably precious educational experiences. Violent crime, drug use, overdose deaths, and suicides rose to unprecedented levels. Riots and other civil unrest broke out in many American cities, while peaceful, constitutional gatherings were branded as virus “super-spreaders,” while the riots were not.
Big Pharma and government combined to develop vaccines that citizens may be soon be compelled to take, despite the alarmingly high frequency of dangerous side effects, including death and miscarriage. More chillingly, some talk of opening “re-education camps” or using facial recognition software to identify, arrest, and punish those who fail to comply with mask mandates.
When Greg Bear wrote these two books, I don’t believe he thought that anything like the events that he portrayed could ever happen in the United States of America. I wonder how he feels about what is transpiring in our country, now?