Tor, 1998 (1999 reprint), 372 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56662-9
This is a weird book, and this will be a weird review.
For the biggest element of Darwinia -its biggest surprise, its biggest flaw, its biggest virtue- is structural. Just mentioning its existence is in itself a spoiler. For Darwinia is book that start out being one story, and then ends up being a totally different story.
As the book begins, something dreadful happens to Europe. The old continent is… replaced by something straight out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel; a strange land roughly similar from a geological point of view, but with a completely different ecology. Of course, all previous traces of humanity have disappeared.
Eight years later, a young photographer named Guiford Law embarks for the old/new continent of Darwinia. After leaving his wife and child in the brand-new settlement of New London, the expedition of which he is part go deep in the mainland, where they’ll find—
Well, they don’t find anything as much as something find them, but that distinction is moot given that this is the moment where the book changes gears on the reader and a whole new paradigm is imposed on us.
It’s not exactly that the new paradigm does not work, because it does (and it does work better than the promise shown by the first half of the book), but rather because it is insufficiently integrated with the rest of the book. Darwinia‘s first 140 pages is a drawn-out narrative detailing Guilford’s expedition. The rest of the book is much more free-ranging, skipping across years and events in a blink and presenting a fragmented view of the story that doesn’t mesh with the slow-paced beginning.
Then, of course, the story moves in a direction that is both interesting, yet ill-suited to Wilson’s writing style. He is too pondered, too atmospheric to deal with a The Stand type of story. He can’t build a good-versus-evil epic with vignettes. While the latter part of the novel shows promise and delivers satisfaction, the mind boggles at what another author would have been able to do with Wilson’s premise.
(A few readers will recognize that Darwinia’s latter part seems to have been inspired by Frank Tippler’s The Physics of Immortality, though much better handled that some other recent similarly-themed SF like Pohl’s Eschcaton trilogy. It’s also no small wonder if Darwinia also shares significant similarities with his own Hugo-nominated story “Divided by Infinity”, recently published in Starlight 2.)
The result, as the introduction to this review makes clear, is very weird; the kind of novel critics like to give A- for effort and C for execution. Darwinia is an interesting half-success, for it shows how difficult it is to build a successful novel. It’s not enough to have a good ideas (or, in this case, two good ideas), and a few good characters. It’s not enough to be able to write well. It’s not enough to be able to put your characters though difficult times. You also have to do it consistently for a whole 300-pages book, and that takes some work. That’s something that few people will notice when it’s done well, but that everyone will criticize if it’s not entirely successful.