The title is entirely accurate: this is a story about the
evolution of primates, from the lowly forms scampering amongst the feet of the
dinosaurs up to Homo Sapiens - and then beyond. The novel is actually a series
of stories. Each story follows the life of a primate in a particular age, starting
with Purga 65 million years ago, a small creature who will survive the impact of
the comet that kills off all the dinosaurs.
Each subsequent story advances the timeline and the primate
development. The primates become more human. Unfortunately, they don't speak or
even have a notion of "self", so as characters, they aren't especially memorable
until we get to Mother, in North Africa 60,000 years ago. Mother is the first primate
advanced enough to give herself a name, to be able to think in abstract thought.
Unfortunately, Mother doesn't show up until page 297, so there is some slow reading
for the first half of the novel.
The story of the biosphere is more compelling than the primates
in the early stories. Baxter slips in a "state of the earth" report with each story,
describing where the continents have drifted off to, what sort of fauna dominates
the earth. Some of the descriptions are interesting speculation - like a band of
intelligent dinosaurs or a gigantic pteradon glides through the upper atmosphere,
never landing. The motion of the continents and the migration of animals over land
bridges is an effective way to convey the immense passage of years. One of the primates
wanders by the straits of Gibralter, at a time when rising sea levels have allowed
the Atlantic to pour through the gap between Africa and Europe, filling the Mediterranean
Sea with a waterfall that dwarfs Niagra Falls.
After a few stories involving genuine humans, Baxter places us in
the not-too-distant future, where a catastrophe strikes. A huge volcanic eruption occurs.
Apparently the volcano's effect on the biosphere is equivalent to an asteroid strike
extinction event. Humanity collapses. I was not convinced by this disappearance of
all intellegent humans. Baxter describes post-volcano primates, the descendants of man, as
merely sophisticated apes, no smarter than some of the lifeforms we visited in the earlier
chapters. But in all the earlier chapters, we saw how increased intelligence allowed
the pre-humans to increase their survival success. Now in the later chapters things are reversed, we are
to believe that lack of intelligence will increase survival chances? I think the more
intelligent primate would always win out over the more stupid primate. Language alone
is an enormous benefit, allowing knowledge to be passed through memes rather than through
The book gets 3 stars because Baxter's speculations are imaginative
and fun. The sweep of time is well portrayed. The post-human biosphere allows Baxter
to be creative, and he describes a plausible but unusual future for Earth's fauna.
Unfortunately, the book is hampered by the lack of any compelling characters, (is
Earth biosphere itself a character?) so the novel is not a page turner.