Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

I’ve been slack on book reviews lately, because Publishers Weekly and Bookslut have hogged most of my reading time. But here’s the first of five novels I’ve read of my own accord in the last few months.

Hugo award-winner Robert Charles Wilson is the Prince of Promising Premises. In Darwinia, something unthinkable happens to the world in 1912. Skies everywhere burst with an auroric light, and the entire continent of Europe disappears overnight. That is, the Europe we’re familiar with.

When American ships headed for Portsmouth encounter a landmass that used to be England, what they find is inexplicable. An entirely new and alien landscape, filled with exotic flora and trecherous wildlife. Dubbed “Darwinia” for its display of an alternate evolutionary process, the new continent spurs a 20th Century very different from the one we know.

A shy Boston photographer named Guilford Law is tapped to join a scientific expedition into the heart of this new wilderness. The remnants of Western Civilization have deemed the transformation a divine miracle, and the Finch Expedition is intent on gathering evidence to prove it. But they weren’t expecting to face a dark force older than time itself, in a battle for the fate of the cosmos.
The first two acts of Darwinia are pure pulp adventure with healthy doses of Wilson’s deft language and character development. You’ll be utterly fascinated by the Continent and its effects on history, and thrilled to follow Guilford Law on the trail to discovering the transformation’s purpose.
But the third act will challenge you. Wilson’s meta-narrative is one of the most abstract science-fiction concepts I’ve ever come across, complete with Higgs fields, Turing packets, and a dichotomy between the ontospheres and noospheres of the universe in the far future. It’s simultaneously frustrating and fascinating. In the end, it makes sense, and the reason for Darwinia’s existence becomes clear, but at the cost of the original sense of adventure. Wilson dilutes the tension he builds by spreading the remainder of the story across decades on Earth (and eons elsewhere), and so any sense of urgency and intrigue is lost. The authentic relationships he constructs so well dissolve, distancing us from Guilford and his loved ones.
Regardless, Darwinia is a fascinating read that combines a Burroughs-style adventure with the cosmological philosophies of Greene or the late Clarke. Plus, just look at that gorgeous cover.
Currently furious with Chicago, which might be the only place in the continental U.S. that still thinks it’s early April.

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