So I keep on reading Bear novels, feeling disappointed, waiting a while, then rinse and repeat.
This time I've clarified why I am so ambivalent about this guy: he has fascinating ideas then writes dull books about them. The premise here is an extreme example. Our "junk" DNA turns out to be a collection of emergency rapid-response evolutionary accelerators - and the emergency response has just been triggered. Cue mysterious pregnancies, peculiar facial mutations and a really big scientific mystery that turns very political very fast. The detail is very convincing - Bear did a heap of research.
But here's the problem: almost every event of a dramatic nature happens off-stage and the middle part of the book, between the initial scientific drama and the political nightmare at the end bogs down severely. Then, to add insult to injury, the book closes before the new generation of evolved humans reaches their teens, so the social consequences are not fully explored (but there is a sequel). It looks like things are heading into X-Men territory, but of course more seriously treated, or, more precisely, in the vein of Nancy Kress's Sleepless books.
There is a theme of the disaster that occurs when science gets forced into the political arena; you only have to look at the climate change debate to know how that goes. It is very realistically handled but develops too slowly. I am reminded of Kim Stanley Robinson. Several of his works deal with science and internal and external politics and how real science is done and I can't help thinking a more interesting novel would have resulted if he had started with the same material.
I acquired Darwin's Children without realising that it was a sequel and then picked up this book subsequently. I will probably read Darwin's Children at some point, since it is lying around and because it really ought to cut to the chase, with the background already painted in with excessive attention to detail but I shall try to resist the urge to buy any more Bear novels regardless of how interesting the premise sounds...