Evolution’s Shore: Fascinating SF with African setting

Evolution’s Shore by Ian McDonald science fiction book reviewsEvolution’s Shore by Ian McDonald

In several equatorial regions of the earth, an alien plant has been growing. The “Chaga,” as it is called, came from outer space and destroys anything manmade that comes near it. Scientists are worried about what it might do to humans. They have not been able to kill it and it is advancing slowly but steadily each day, changing the landscape and covering villages and cities as it progresses. Not only are people’s lives being disrupted as they have to flee their homes and become refugees, but they’re also worried about what the Chaga is doing here in the first place. Is it benign? Is there an intelligence behind it? Is it a precursor to an alien invasion? Nobody knows.

The mystery of the Chaga and its effect on humanity have inspired Gaby McAslin, a feisty red-headed green-eyed Irish woman, to become a journalist so she can go to Nairobi and try to figure out what the Chaga is doing as it descends from Mount Kilimanjaro. She goes to college, gets a degree in journalism (though it seems like a biology degree would have served her better), gets a job, and manages to get a series of promotions that allow her to go to Nairobi to report on the Chaga. While she’s there she’s immersed in Kenyan culture (including all its beauty and its corruption), manages to sneak into the Chaga area (which is guarded by soldiers), meets people who have been physically affected by the Chaga, exposes the activities of crooked U.N. troops, and gets sexually involved with a few men.

The best part of Evolution’s Shore, which is the first book in a trilogy, is the Chaga itself, and what it represents. At the beginning of the book, it’s a complete mystery as the story focuses more on developing Gaby’s character. The Chaga area has a dark sinister feel like Area X in Jeff Vandermeer’s SOUTHERN REACH series. (It also reminded me of Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and, believe it or not, George R.R. Martin’s WILD CARDS anthologies). As we learn additional information about the Chaga, it becomes even more intriguing. I’d love to talk about McDonald’s science fiction ideas here, because I think they’re really cool, but I don’t want to ruin the story for you, so I won’t. The slow reveal was my favorite part of the book. By the end, we don’t have all the answers, so I look forward to reading more in book 2, Kirinya.

The most important theme is, as the title suggests, human evolution. Have we come to an evolutionary dead-end because we are able to use technology to control our environment? And, if so, can we use our advances in technology and science, especially in the areas of genetics, neuroscience, organic chemistry, space exploration and communication, to change ourselves? Is it possible that our society could evolve into one that has no poverty or market pressures? Could we evolve to live in space? What will a post-humanity look like? McDonald adds poignancy to these questions by setting his story in Africa, humanity’s birthplace.

Besides the cool science fiction, Evolution’s Shore focuses on important earthly problems such as poverty, HIV, organized crime, government corruption, discrimination, and Eurocentrism. The book also has something to say about the importance of home (many of the characters, including Gaby herself, are displaced temporarily or permanently).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t too fond of McDonald’s protagonist, Gaby McAslin. She’s self-absorbed and immature, her personality is abrasive, she takes some stupid risks, and she’s a bit slutty. (I do like her sense of social justice, though.) Much of the plot focuses on Gaby’s career and her relationships. I loved the sections where she was making discoveries about the Chaga, and I also enjoyed the Kenya setting (this was well done). I would have appreciated Evolution’s Shore even more if I had liked Gaby.

I listened to Audible Studio’s version of Evolution’s Shore which is 17.5 hours long. Narrator Melanie McHugh (who, I’m assuming, is Irish) was perfect for this role. Her pacing was nice and her voices were believable except that she has the guy from the American Midwest pronounce the letter H as “haitch” instead of “aitch.” But that’s hardly worth mentioning. I liked the audio version so much that I’ll be reading Kirinya on audio, too. Today, in fact.


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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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2 comments

  1. Kat, I recently moved house, which means my bicycle commute to work extended significantly. Perfect time to listen to a book, no? As such, I’ve started to appreciate the nuances of audio book narration. (Sharon Williams for Greg Bear’s Moving Mars and Joshua Swanson for Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, for example, are two I’ve recently come across and been impressed with their ability to actually enhance the stories, whereas I’ve been turned completely off by Kate Baker at Clarkesworld for her poor accents and reading in a perpetually breathless voice – like bad romance.) Thus, I’ve likewise come to appreciate your little side notes regarding the narration of the books you listen to here on fanlit. Thanks, and keep it up!

    • Hi Jesse, I’m so glad to hear this! Most of our readers don’t listen to audiobooks, which is why I don’t emphasize the narration too much in my reviews and I try to “rate” the book only on the actual content, but I know that the narration can influence my perception of the author’s goals and impact how well I enjoy the story. Sometimes it’s hard to separate that out.

      I have no idea how libraries and book selling work in your country, but send me an email if you think I might have helpful suggestions for how to acquire audiobooks less expensively.

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