Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
Posted October 22, 2016on:
where I got it: purchased used
In spring of 1912, something so incredible happened, many people believed it to be a divine miracle. That march, a circle of land enclosing Western Europe, much of the Mediterranean, and some of North Africa disappeared, and was instantaneously replaced with . . . something new. The land was still there, but all the people, cities, buildings, animals, technology, everything was gone, replaced by strange new plants and animals. It was as if evolution had gone down a slightly different path countless eons ago. Rivers were in slightly different places, mountain ranges not exactly as they had been. What was once Europe has now become Darwinia.
This world would never have a World War, the Titanic would never leave port, The Russian Revolution and Spanish Flu would never happen. Edgar Rice Burroughs publishes a novel called “Lost Kingdom of Darwinia”. Alternate history indeed. Scientists, biologists, naturalists and frontiersmen across the planet become nearly obsessed with the new world. New species to categorize, a whole new frontier to explore and dominate.
Guilford Law was twelve years old when the “miracle” occurred. Now in his twenties, he and his family travel to what was once London where he has been hired on as a photographer for a scientific expedition. London is now a frontier town, population a few hundred. The expedition starts out well enough, with the scientists arguing about the plants and animals they find that have obviously been around longer than the land has been like this. They find trees with decades worth of rings, animals and insects that have evolved through countless generations, giant midden heaps around insect hives, the evolved skulls of predators. If this new world has only existed for eight years, where did all the plants and creatures do their evolving? As this line of inquiry gets more and more fascinating, the expedition hits some bad luck, and Law barely makes it back to London alive. (I’d thought the expedition was going to be the main plot of the book, I couldn’t have been more wrong!) And don’t even get me started on the strange dreams the expedition members have, and what else they find in the jungle.
Not only is the writing fantastic, but Wilson renders the characters and their attitudes to be in line with the time. Guilford thinks he’s going on an adventure, that this will be just like when he photographed the Grand Canyon. When his mind is blown by the simple lethal dangers of the continent, he barely knows what to do with himself. He’s not a hero. He’s just a guy who is trying to make a living and argue less with his wife. Everyone you meet in this book feels like a real person.
As Law and his group are surviving (or not, for some of them), the author takes the reader rght out of the main plot and to towards what is really going on. And at this point, it’s the scale that is so astounding. It’s one thing to write an alternate history, it’s been done. It’s an entirely different thing to write an alternate history of this magnitude. I am purposely being vague because I don’t want to wreck the big reveal.
So let me talk about that big reveal, in a very roundabout way. The way Wilson presents it, it actually makes perfect sense. That said, you are either going to respond with “Damn is that clever!”, or “seriously? That’s ridiculous”. Luckily, I am of the first camp, and I hope you are too. But I imagine that when this book first came out, the response triggered conversations both philosophical and polarizing.
You know how most book conclude rather swiftly after the big reveal? Not so with Darwinia. Once people learn what’s going on, they need to come to terms with it, and they need to be convinced to do what needs to be done. This is much bigger than a new frontier, much bigger than an entire population that disappeared, it is so much bigger than any scientific discovery. And it doesn’t matter how far Guilford runs or how fast, he can’t escape being involved. He finds the entire situation abhorrent, as I imagine anyone who interpreted what happened as a divine miracle would.
Do you like alternate history? Do you like really good plot twists? If you do, then you’ll probably like Darwinia.