I don’t know if this genre has an “official” name, but when I describe it you’ll know instantly what I mean: the grand sweep of history novel. Edward Rutherford covered 2,000 years of the British capital in London: The Novel. James A. Michener covered Israel’s even longer history in The Source.
But no one, really, can get a grander sweep than Stephen Baxter does in Evolution, a Novel. For he starts in the age of dinosaurs, with a little rat-like primate ancestor of ours called Purga, who witnesses the collapse of that great ecosystem to a near planet-destroying comet, 65 million years ago, watches as the human race evolves, then imagines our decline, finishing 500 million years into the future when we’re symbiotically dependent on a tree that directs our existence, the last tree it turns out, on a dying earth.
The key trick with this genre is to quickly create characters with whom the reader identifies, since we won’t have a lot of time to get to know them, and this is something at which Baxter excels. Even his more primitive creatures, anthropomorphised of course, quickly grab your sympathy.
And his imagining of the life of Homo erectus, the later hominids, and modern humans – represented by the difficult, troubled and imaginative brain of a woman 60,000 years ago in the Sahara, ancestral Australian Aborigines 52,000 years ago; the last Neanderthals 32,00 years ago in western France; the world’s first city, Catal Huyuk 9,600 years ago; the dying age of Ancient Rome; and the last humans like us, some time tens of thousands of years into the future – deep frozen survivors waking into a different world.
There’s much imagination here – there’s a sense that this is a science fiction novel (which is how Amazon classes it), and the whip-cracking intelligent dinosaurs is, to this reader, one step too far.
But it is also clearly based on a stupendous amount of research into paleontology, archaeology and anthropology, and intelligent thought about how the world might have worked in different eras. There’s also a delightful sly wit; Republican Rome is the pinnacle of our species, which is not how most people today would put it.
Generally, however, this learning is worn pretty lightly (if showing signs of the dinosaur obsessed youngster I bet Baxter once was). For this is an easy-reading, intoxicating novel – the whole history of evolution, and the theories behind it, accessible to any reader at all. You could call it an ideal intelligent airport novel.