Stephen Baxter


Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

June 1, 2004

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 genes.

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.