Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Orb Books (first published 1998)
ISBN 10: 0765319055
ISBN 13: 9780765319050)
Genre: Science Fiction, Alternative history
Copy: Bought myself
In 1912, history was changed by the Miracle, when the Old World of Europe was replaced by Darwinia, a strange land of nightmarish jungle and antediluvian monsters. To some, the Miracle was an act of divine retribution; to others, it is an opportunity to carve out a new empire.
Leaving an America now ruled by religious fundamentalists, young Guildford Law travels to Darwinia on a mission of discovery that will take him further than he can possibly imagine… to a shattering revelation about mankind’s destiny in the universe.
I spotted this book when I was browsing the SFF section of a large city centre branch of Waterstones, it was the title that initially caught my eye, the book being shelved with only the spine visible, and knowing that Robert Charles Wilson has written several Science Fiction novels, I was curious to see what Darwinia had to offer. Once I saw the beautiful cover (credited to Jim Burns) I knew I had to have this book and the summary on the back confirmed what I had thought… this is my kind of book! A catastrophic event, alternative history, humanity’s destiny; I had high expectations for Darwinia.
This is a book of two halves; I wonder if it was originally 2 or more linked novellas because the tone of the second half is markedly different from the first. I was entranced by Darwinia within the first few pages, it read like an old-fashioned adventure novel similar to Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Europe was completely replaced by a new land almost overnight. The entire population disappeared, all signs of civilisation – buildings, farmland, cities – were gone, to be replaced by a dense green jungle populated by strange, sometimes venomous creatures.
The principal character, Guildford Law is a photographer with a fascination for Darwinia since the Miracle happened when he was a child in the US. He joins an expedition to the interior of the continent with a group of scientists, travelling by steamship with his wife, Caroline, and their daughter Lily, to London, now a frontier town in the same location as the old city. I loved the descriptions of London, the Thames clogged with false lotus plants, strange sea snakes living in the murky water, a ramshackle town surrounded by dense vegetation. As the expedition sets off into continental Europe, pursued by Partisans who resent the intrusion of Americans into their former homelands, and facing unknown creatures in a Europe where only the physical features of the former landscape remain, we still do not know how the Miracle came about, or why? Just that the new Europe appeared, fully formed, over the course of a day or two, accompanied by earth tremors and auroras visible around the world.
A big reveal comes towards the end of the first part of the book, and without giving too much away, this is where the science fiction of Darwinia emerges by way of an Interlude. This is also where my interest in the book starts to wane, for I found this information to be confusing and it led to me wondering what was going on… I felt I had missed some important plot development and was struggling to understand the progression of the story. From the comfortable adventure-in-a-new-world scenario, Wilson introduces a completely new and dominant element without warning and this threw me off balance. From this point on, the book becomes choppy, with the point of view switching between various characters, not always in a time-linear fashion. It is fair to say I struggled to reach the end, and while most loose ends were tied up by the conclusion, I had lost interest.
Overall, Darwinia starts out with great promise with the overnight replacement of the Europe we are familiar with. The effects on both religion and American politics is well realised, and the descriptions of Darwinia itself are magnificent. However, I found the characterisation to be flawed – women do not fare well in this book, there being very few to start with, and Caroline was just annoying, forever playing the weak, insipid wife. Lily, although a stronger personality, was too one-dimensional for me and I failed to engage with her as much as I possibly could have. Darwinia would probably appeal to readers with more of an affinity with hard Science fiction than me. There are familiar SF themes in the second half of the book, with some interesting ideas explored, but the sudden lurch from adventure/fantasy territory proved a bit overwhelming for me. I still love the cover though!