Darwin’s Blade, Dan Simmons

Morrow, 2000, 368 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97369-3

If you’ve been browsing the web for longer than six months, chances are that you’ve heard of the Darwin Awards, those dubious honorifics posthumously given “those who improve our gene pool… by removing themselves from it” (see their web site at www.darwinawards.com) or, more prosaically, to people so stupid they deserved to die. Darwin Awards lists get forwarded through the Internet regularly, cramming stories of fatal mishaps in countless email boxes at depressingly predictable intervals. (There is an interesting lack of self-awareness in blindly forwarding stories of stupid behaviour to everyone on your contact list, but I digress.)

Darwin’s Blade begins with a fictionalization of what may be the Darwin Awards’ most famous stupidity-induced death. I won’t spoil it, but this bizarre accident manages to showcase the deductive skills of one Darwin (“Dar”) Minor, an accident investigator with far more skills than one may suspect. Chapters later, as Darwin out-drives a pair of Russian thugs, he finds himself thick in the middle of a sordid insurance-scamming business where families die and billions of dollars are defrauded. Firefights, dogfights, sniping, romance and more wacky insurance cases are quick to follow.

Dan Simmons hops from genre to genre with great skill and success: Hyperion and its sequels rocked the science-fiction world and Summer of Night blew away more than one horror reader. Now, Darwin’s Blade is Simmons’ entry in the (techno)thriller genre. The action moves furiously from one thing to another, there is a pleasant density of technical details for just about every new gadget, military matters are mixed with detective work and the action ratchets up to (no kidding) a mano-a-mano duel in the middle of a grassy plain. Mixing high technology with primitive human stupidity, Darwin’s Blade is one tasty book for readers with a penchant for thrillers about unusual knowledge. As with his previous novels, Simmons has studied a genre and understood what readers want. Also obvious is Simmons’ penchant for recycling: Darwin’s Blade immediately evokes the similar accident-investigator story “Entropy’s Bed at Midnight” (from Lovedeath) and at one point echoes an idea from his short-short horror story “Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” (in Prayers to Broken Stones).

Like most thrillers, the appeal of Darwin’s Blade depends a lot on its protagonist. In Darwin Minor, we’ve certainly met a capable hero, perhaps even a little bit much so. For he’s not simply a top-rated accident investigator (one whose eponymous aphorism states that “the simplest solution is usually stupidity.”) Oh no; Excellent driver, PhD-holder (in nuclear physics, no less), Vietnam veteran Marine, expert sniper, champ sail-glider, world-class chess player, literature-lover, Darwin Minor packs enough interests to fill a full trilogy. But in what may be one of Darwin’s Blade most amusing flaw, his multiple talents are uncovered as the story requires them. By the time a flashback describes how a 19-year-old Darwin, already PhD in Nuclear Physics, defends a Vietnamese nuclear power plant against attack without it having a link to his academic background, well, it’s not hard to feel as if Simmons has crammed one too many talents in his stoic hero. Fortunately, there is a point to all of those skills besides the demands of the plot… but it’s made a bit too late to comfort the least indulgent readers.

The other not-quite-so-amusing flaw of the novel may be glaring to some and transparent to others, depending on their degree of familiarity with, yes, the Darwin Awards. Many well-known stories are simply transplanted in Darwin’s Blade with scarcely any winks to the knowledgeable audience. Besides the first few pages, the worst instance of this takes place at the end of Chapter 14, where the punchline of the whole sequence is obvious as soon as we read the words “chicken cannon”. Nearly everyone who knows what a chicken cannon is and how it’s used is also familiar with the one single famous anecdote about it. Unfortunately, Simmons takes five pages to spell it out.

But no matter: those quirks aside, super-protagonist Darwin Minor is one heck of a hero and the density of ideas, concepts and gadgets in Darwin’s Blade more than outweighs the faults it may have. Thanks to Simmons’ delicious prose and efficient plotting, the book roars along with the speed of an Acura NSX and delivers plenty of fun thrills despite the occasional disbelieving giggle or two. Simmons fans should be comforted; the man has successfully genre-hopped again.

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