The tide of change

I just finished reading Stephen Baxter's _Evolution_ yesterday. What a powerful book it was. Is. You get the idea.

It's a story that pivots around the near future and traces the history and future of the primate phylum -- one unbroken line of genes -- from the earliest times, when the dinosaurs were wiped out, to the last of them alive, some 500 million years in the future. The story is a strange one -- it's hard to see something of this size and scope not being so. From beginning to end the story covers nearly a billion years, perhaps more, and it has some of the saddest ideas in it...

A few selected, somewhat spoilerish vignettes follow: Baxter describes the comet that struck the earth, ending the age of the giant reptiles and paving the way for the dominance of mammals, and subsequently primates. He describes the confusion the dinosaurs must have felt, the shock and fear at the world ending. I imagine that it was a lot like that, for instance, for the pets trapped in the fire on Whyte Ave. last year. Incomprehensible, painful, unable to grasp what was happening or to escape it... It's a hard read, but rewarding.

He skips over some of the evolution of mankind's evolution that i would have expected to dominate any such story; the tale is almost exclusively focused on consciousness and migration, instead of tool-building. Fire simply becomes part of the story, between one epoch and the next. Opposable thumbs as well, and starting to walk upright is barely touched upon. Instead, the story is focused on the pressures that changed populations, the forces that shaped the creatures into the dominant species and brought them low again.

The ending -- the last 150 pages or so -- is tragic and yet still plausible. I wanted to cry when it ended, with the last primate to roam coming to the edge of a sea and giving up hope, returning to her symbiotic home and resting, never to wake, as the last of the primates on earth die around her.

I wish I could properly explain what grabs me about this book. I know that the explanation for why there were no cats post-humanity really touched me, the way we have bred the traits that would allow them to be the hunters they once were right out of the species in favour of cuteness and soft fur. The learning of trade was another aspect, as was the death -- alone and still uncomprehending -- of the world's last Neanderthal (sp?).

It's a great book. Very moving, very intelligent. I can't recommend it enough, this is easily some of the best science fiction i've ever read. I guess that sums it up.

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