Evolution should not be mistaken for a novel, though it exists in the same ecological niche. Stephen Baxter’s latest is at best a series of short stories set at turning points in the evolutionary history of man. I say “at best” because only a few of the chapters cover primates intelligent enough to count as the protagonists of a real story.

That’s not to say that the adventures of mole-sized proto-primates aren’t engrossing in their own right, but Evolution is naturalistic fiction with a vengeance. The attention to excretion alone is staggering. The cumulative effect is to make one embarrassed to be Homo sapiens, and as the violent, weary, feces-filled history of man progresses, suicidal.

The story doesn’t end with anatomically modern man, but don’t hold your breath for the singularity - in Stephen Baxter’s dystopic vision, you and I are as good as it gets. If you thought the Dark Ages were a bad scene, wait until you see the year 500,000,000.

One of the more striking chapters of the “novel” is a Planet of the Apes-style scene of a group of modern humans accidentally awakening from cryosleep long after a worldwide collapse. Rodents are on the rise and mankind has already lost the gift of speech. The latter is highly unlikely in general and not particularly believable the way the author does it, but it’s not the worst offense of the chapter. In a proper novel, the band of Rips van Winkle would have gone forth and taught the feral humans to be human again, or died trying. You can’t just give up on the entire species - if you’re the last intelligent form of life in the universe, you have to try to do something about it.

But they don’t, and thus they seal the fate of Homo sapiens. Other interesting moments include the birth of religion (it’s founded by a madwoman) and an intelligent dead-end on the dinosaurs’ evolutionary tree (published elsewhere as a short story). There are a few almost cheerful moments of technological discovery involving flint and canoes, but these are outweighed by the heartless murders of a Neanderthal and a Roman.

I had my doubts about Stephen Baxter back when I read Manifold: Origin, but now I wonder why he writes at all. Yes, I’ve been known to let the Borg assimilate the Alpha Quadrant, but when I wipe out mankind, I do it for the tragedy. He seems to have done it because he believes feces and decay are not a tragic flaw in our higher nature - they are our nature. Evolution is not a tragedy; it’s a horror story.

The only thing worse than horror is unintentional horror.

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