Sunday, August 22, 2010

Darwinia

Reader of this blog will be familiar with my adoration of Robert Charles Wilson. I've read two of his novels, and fell in love with them. I decided to keep reading what is available to me, hoping that the streak would continue, and I read Darwinia, winner of the Philip K Dick award,




One day, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the continent of Europe disappears, leaving behind a land mass with the same geography, but whose evolution changed thousands of years previous, creating flora and fauna never seen on Earth. The whole world is changed completely, irrevocably. The novel follows Guildford Law, a young photographer who travels with an expedition into the mysterious wilderness.


Just like the other two books I read by Wilson, the novel starts out one way and ends in a completely different way. That synopsis really only covers half of the novel, which changes gears drastically at about the midway point. Certainly the novel is an alternate history one, interested in exploring the sociological and historical elements of changing history, but this is also a bizarre science fiction novel with a central premise predicated on misdirection.


Spoilers for the novel start.


It seems that this alternate Earth is merely an illusion. At the end of the universe is an immense sentient machine which has all of history within itself. Not a recording of history - literally everything that existed. But this Sentience is being attacked by something that I'm not sure I fully understand. This enemy tries to fight with this history by changing something fundamental. But the real history, the real people, all exist as "ghosts" or packets of algorithms on a noosphere. People who died in the Great War, such a traumatic and strong part of time, have the ability to speak to their doubles, who never had a Great War. Guildford, our protagonist is then conscripted by himself into fighting a literal war with the doubles of those who are subjugated by the mysterious Enemy.


This doesn't really do the last third of the novel justice. Wilson is dealing with large scientific concepts but they are related by a regular person, creating a layer of misunderstanding between the author, the character and the reader.


However, one can plainly see that the novel is predicated entirely on misdirection. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The same can be said of Blind Lake, but that was held together by an engaging mystery and a handful of interesting and rounded characters.


Darwinia suffers from its misdirection by jumping forwards in time every 20 to 30 years, checking back in with its bizarrely immortal protagonist Guildford. Every time we meet a supporting cast member, Wilson has them killed off by enemies or old age. This wouldn't be a problem if Guildford wasn't so blank. He has no real personality.


The parts of the novel dealing the expedition are easily the strongest. Full of mystery, and some clever foreshadowing, the expedition keeps the reader hooked. When Guildford returns, almost all of the supporting cast is taken off the board, leaving him to deal with nothing. There's no emotional resolution, and there really never is overall at the end of the novel.


While I may have been annoyed by the misdirection, the concept is clever, but it's not enough. A whole reality manipulated by an immense, wholly alien idea is interesting. However the execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. I enjoyed Darwinia in spite of its many weaknesses. Surely my high expectations helped fuel the disappointment. The novel's lack of well-drawn characters and lack of emotional impact are almost fatal flaws, but only the central concept keeps the novel from being a disaster. Thus, the streak ends for Wilson and I. However, this does not deter me from continuing, as I got his out of print time travel novel Bridge of Years from eBay.


Speaking of out of print, I found one of Richard Price's early novels in a used bookstore the other day, as well as a Samuel R. Delany novel (also out of print), both of which I think I'm going to read next. Even though I have a bunch of Atwood to read still, and the aforementioned Wilson novel. As always, keep checking back for updates!

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