In 1912, continental Europe suddenly changed into a foreign wilderness. Where there once were European nations arming for war, there are now new ecosystems and alien creatures. There is even a baffling, new evolutionary history. Christians declare “Darwinia” a miracle — what else could explain what’s happened but Biblical precedent? America, meanwhile, declares the continent open for exploration and settlement.
Guilford Law, originally from Boston, is an ambitious photographer who travels to England with his wife and daughter. He leaves them there before traveling alone with the Finch expedition. The expedition hopes to penetrate the European wilderness, and Guilford hopes to make a name for himself.
Elias Vale, meanwhile, is an American con man who suddenly realizes that he has been inhabited by a demon that grants him strange powers. Vale begins making a name for himself as a psychic medium, though the demon within has its own plans for the future.
Darwinia is easily recognized as a Robert Charles Wilson novel. Many of Wilson’s novels focus on a watershed moment, and I laughed reading Darwinia’s second sentence: “it was the watershed of historical time, the night that divided all that followed from everything that went before.” This sentence could appear in almost all of Wilson’s novels.
There are additional Wilson trademarks. Guilford’s adventures allow Wilson’s narrative to move from a localized to an epic, galactic perspective. The alternate history and “demon-haunted” villains recall the Sims in Wilson’s 2013 novel, Burning Paradise. Wilson also takes familiar science fiction/adventure motifs and re-imagines them. I particularly enjoyed that the “Miracle” allowed America to colonize Europe. Having said that, Guilford and the other members of the American Finch expedition would have fit in on Shackleton’s British expeditions to Antarctica.
Though fans of Wilson’s science fiction will likely enjoy Darwinia, his later works are better. Darwinia’s characters are mostly dull, especially Guilford. And compared to, say, George R.R. Martin’s expedition beyond the Wall in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, Guilford’s initial journey into the Darwinian wilderness is surprisingly dry. Yes, there are strange creatures, some gory insect-feasting-on-human action, and a few violent partisans, but there’s nothing as memorable as Craster’s Keep and the wildlings. (David Grann’s descriptions of Amazonian insects infesting English explorers in The Lost City of Z are also more horrific.) Many of Wilson’s novels read like thrillers, but the first two thirds of Darwinia are unusually slow.
Fortunately, the final third is more interesting. It’s difficult to summarize without spoiling the novel, but I was struck by the ways in which Darwinia, published in 1998, anticipated so much of [highlight to see spoiler] The Matrix. The final section of the novel even transforms Guilford from a dry photographer into a tragic figure. Though Wilson seems to have preferred Darwinia’s story as a novel, its final third might have made a fantastic novella.
Darwinia was nominated for a Hugo Award, and it does offer readers a lot. Wilson has written a science fiction novel that contains elements of alternative history, cyberpunk, steampunk, the Western, and especially frontier style adventure. Darwinia is likely to please Wilson’s longtime fans, though I (mostly) found it lacking compared to his later novels.