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Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
(Orion Millennium, £5.99, 320 pages, paperback; published 13 May 1999.)

This is an ambitious novel. Robert Charles Wilson attempts here a work of the same kind as many by Philip K Dick, or like Keith Roberts’ Pavane, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and John Crowley’s Engine Summer: that is, a book in which the narrator, the protagonist - perhaps the world itself - is a façade, a fiction, a dream, or, more formally and accurately, a reconstruction unaware of the fact. Such books are not easy to write; somehow, the author must imply the second-hand nature of things, the narrative’s status as a twice-told tale or recording, while preserving the humanity, the free will, of his or her characters. That Darwinia achieves this feat is the chief mark of its excellence.

From the start, this novel, like Pavane, is in alternate-history mode. In 1912, as in our past, Europe stands at the brink of world war; but what is to most people the veritable Hand of God intervenes. The entire continent, containing the world’s greatest economic and colonial powers, vanishes amid a massive aurora, to be replaced with a geographically similar but biologically alien landmass. The familiar becomes abruptly and utterly strange; deftly, richly, through the viewpoints of various characters, Wilson plays the game of alternate history on two complementary levels. There is the changed Europe, known jokingly as Darwinia (because its sudden, miraculous appearance seems to discredit evolutionary theory, with its slow, developing increments of time). In creating this, Wilson offers alternate natural history: a different biological path for Earth, allowing intriguing ecological speculations and reflections on convergent evolution. And then there is alternate human history, that of the wider world altered by Darwinia’s intrusion: colonies thrown free, economies disrupted by the vanishing of trade partners and industrial centres, a new, Edenic continent that America proceeds to colonize in ironic reversal of the actions of Columbus and all his successors. This is a fine foundation for Wilson’s well-written, well-characterized tale.

In 1920, a young photographer, Guilford Law, accompanies an important US scientific expedition into Darwinia’s wild interior. The enigma of the continent’s provenance has caused religious and scientific confusion everywhere; perhaps this journey can produce some answers. But the mystery only grows, to the extent that the basis of everything - personal identity along with history and cosmology - is undermined. Guilford is a reader of scientific and lost-race romances; he and his companions experience adventures straight out of Burroughs or Haggard, encountering dangerous wildlife and a vacant, sinister stone city; are they inhabiting some sort of living fiction? Guilford’s wife is unhappy in the frontier settlement that is the new London, as if her married life is a false existence she necessarily longs to escape. Back in America, demonic entities are recruiting human agents; and Guilford and others receive ghostly intimations of their former true lives as casualties of the 1914-18 War. By the close of Book One, Wilson accomplishes genuine ontological suspense.

But unlike some previous portrayers of such existential shifting sands, Wilson doesn’t keep his readers waiting to the end for some revelation (Gene Wolfe, of course, keeps them waiting beyond the end, perhaps forever). Convenient textual Interludes provide regular cosmic background to events - even as the characters, who are not readers, stumble on unknowing.

As the decades pass, as Darwinia is settled and industrialized, as dark conspiracies and individual tragedies mount, it becomes clear even to Guilford that the World War he and those like him missed (and know only in dreams and visions) was nothing compared with the impending galactic Armageddon in which he is a reluctant foot-soldier and his Earth is data to be rewritten. The narrative’s pace increases, different threads converge, and Darwinia concludes excitingly and resonantly. Excitingly, in that the last battle is a more meaningful reprise of the trench battles of World War One, a stalemate broken; and resonantly, in that, after being a tragic pawn, after seeming to be a recording of the dead past or a cipher for higher powers, Guilford Law achieves free will and mortal contentment. Wilson has managed the fine balance: combining a concept that makes his characters mere constructs with a plot that allows them full humanity.

Darwinia, then, is thought-provoking as well as readable. It doesn’t attain all the heights that it might: its language, at times richly metaphoric, elsewhere tends to the thin; the earlier Interludes might have been reserved for later in the text, to keep certain puzzles intact; Wilson’s’s elaborate metaphysics might have been detailed more fully, making the book a genuine novel of ideas. But as a thriller of artifice, as a portrait of global disorientation, as a tale of souls in the grip of the gods, it succeeds very well.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 26 June 1999