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Literature and Medicine 20.1 (2001) 71-93

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"Not a Virus, but an Upgrade": The Ethics of Epidemic Evolution in Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio

Lisa Lynch

Three-quarters of the way into Greg Bear's 1999 novel Darwin's Radio, the novel's protagonist, Kaye Lang, sees Dustin Hoffman on television as she flips channels in a motel room. The grim, exhausted Lang is momentarily transfixed by Hoffman, who reprises his role as an army researcher in the 1993 film Outbreak. Striding through an empty film studio (as if he were trying to return to the site of the film itself), the actor urges the public to remain calm in the face of a viral epidemic:

You might remember I played a scientist fighting a deadly disease in a movie called Outbreak. I've been talking to the scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they're working as hard as they can, every day, to fight SHEVA and stop our children from dying. 1

Hoffman's television spot is a desperate measure, a public service announcement paid for by the U.S. government in an effort to combat mounting civil unrest. A newly emergent endogenous retrovirus called Scattered Human Endogenous Retro Virus Activation (SHEVA) is spreading unchecked around the country, causing miscarriages and odd facial deformities. Riots have broken out, infected pregnant women have been murdered, and scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have failed utterly in their attempt to halt the epidemic. Self-exiled in her motel room, Lang reflects painfully on this failure; she herself has just quit the CDC's SHEVA Taskforce after trying one last time to make them understand what SHEVA really is. She and a few other [End Page 71] enlightened souls have discovered there is a link between SHEVA and human evolution, and Lang has chosen to let the "disease" run its course in her own body.

Darwin's Radio begins as if it were yet another in the recent proliferation of American medical thrillers about epidemic outbreak: disease breaks out, a pattern of contagion and mortality emerges, and government doctors and scientists race to prevent disaster. But gradually Bear subverts the conventions of these contemporary medical thrillers, transforming Darwin's Radio into a work of speculative fiction that has more in common with Octavia Butler's Clay's Ark than with the novels of Robin Cook or Richard Preston. As evidence mounts that the disease in Darwin's Radio is in fact something utterly unexpected, a disease that cannot be contained by the efforts of science and government, the expected heroes of the novel--doctors and government officials committed to fighting SHEVA--also, surprisingly, become its villains. Bear uses these twin plot twists to critique the ideological and structural conservatism that is a determining generic feature of the medical thrillers the novel initially resembles. Beyond genre critique, Darwin's Radio is also engaged in social critique; the novel's portrayal of medical misunderstanding and state repression serves as an allusive commentary on contemporary issues in medical ethics, including medical privacy, abortion rights, industry-government alliances, and medical testing. Darwin's Radio thus has a great deal to say about the future and present state of medicine, both the actual institutions of medicine and the images of these institutions in American popular culture. However, the novel cannot be read simply in terms of what it might suggest about medical practices and their representations. This is because when the novel shifts generic gears, it also shifts focus; the narrative's concern with SHEVA as a disease phenomenon gives way to a sociobiological celebration of human development through genetic change. By the end of Darwin's Radio, the SHEVA epidemic does not merely serve to illuminate a series of crises in medicine and society; the virus is itself, Bear suggests, the only possible solution to these crises. Darwin's Radio asserts that Homo sapiens has reached an evolutionary milestone, and...


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