Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson: winner of the 1999 Hugo (in an alternate timeline)

DarwiniaRobert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia is as near perfect as fiction comes. It’s literary, intelligent and entertaining in equal measure. Rarely does a writer get it this right. Wilson’s characters are complex and believable, the prose is frequently beautiful, and he has an eye for original imagery wrapped up in an exquisitely apt turn of phrase: consider how the urbane but amoral Timothy Crane slides into the ranks of Washington’s elite “like a gilded suppository”.

You’ve got to smile.

Although Darwinia was a finalist in the 1999 Hugos, the award for Best SF novel that year went to Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. Willis also took first place in the Locus Poll for Best SF Novel. Darwinia came second. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Well, almost always. Darwinia did take first place in the Aurora Awards, Canada’s award for Canadian writers of science fiction and fantasy. Wilson has lived in Canada since age 9.

Without giving too much away (just in case you haven’t read it), here’s a brief synopsis. The subtitle for Darwinia is A novel of a very different Twentieth Century; the departure from our timeline occurs in 1912 with the sudden replacement of Europe and surrounding areas with an alternate sea and landmass, physically similar but with an entirely different evolution: a fundamentally alien and hostile environment. Everyone and everything within the area affected has gone: it is as if our Europe never existed. And yet the loss is localised to that geographic area: the people, history and places remain in the consciousness of the survivors elsewhere. Given the prevailing science this change cannot be explained and it is generally accepted to be an act of God, a miracle. The consequences are far reaching. Scientific rationalism falls out of favour and, at least in the Western world (i.e. America), a conservative Christian fundamentalism gains ascendancy. In post-miracle America this taint is coupled with an economic imperialist agenda and America presses its advantage under the guise of equal opportunity for all, militarily enforcing a policy of Europe free and open to resettlement without borders. Which in practice means an American New World. It transpires that these machinations of the American power elite have an even darker motivation: the strings are being pulled.

Darwinia has been compared unfavourably to The Matrix (1999) as if it is somehow derivative, which is unfortunate as Wilson’s novel preceded the Wakowski brothers’ movie by a year. There are broad similarities between the two (reality as information, for instance), but in both cases the debt is properly owed to Philip K. Dick. To be fair to Wilson, however, his debt to Dick (which is large) is one of ideas, not style. Dick never wrote anything so fine as Darwinia. Wilson’s literary flair is closer to that of Gene Wolfe than Dick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Dick’s work, but not even the superb Man in the High Castle is this literary.

Clearly the novel has had critical acclaim (reaching the finals of the Hugos and achieving second in the Locus Poll is nothing to be sniffed at) but reviews have been, well, mixed to say the least. Some have been downright awful. If you want a rough idea of how divided opinion is though, take a look at the customer reviews on Amazon: the majority give it three stars or less. And some readers really dislike it.

DarwiniaI’m not saying that we should all like the same stuff – in matters of taste there’s no dispute, after all – but I think there’s a far more profound reason than taste for why Darwinia leaves some readers feeling cold. For the first 120 pages or so, Darwinia bears all the hall marks of a fantasy of alternate history, with an expertly crafted atmosphere somewhat similar to that conjured by H. Rider Haggard and E. R. Burroughs (both of whom are directly evoked by characters in the novel). But this is fundamentally a work of science fiction and the moment that this reality becomes apparent – the very end of Part One – is disconcerting. Jaw dropping, in fact. Our experience as readers is a pale reflection of that of the protagonist, Guilford Law, who learns that the world as he’s known it is utterly different from what he believed.

The universe expands. The novel steps up a level. It’s a massive step up. We’ve been expelled from the Garden!

Darwinia incorporates elements of several genres: fantasy, SF, alternate history and horror (did I mention the horror?). And there is almost always a risk of alienating some readers in such an attempt. Not so much readers of science fiction, I think, but more so for a certain reader of fantasy: of escapist fantasy, not the subversive fantasy of writers like China Mieville.

Now don’t think I’m passing any judgements. Really, I’m not.

Ok, I am. And I’m generalising terribly too: committed readers of escapist literature can’t stand it when the swaddling cocoon is ripped apart. And they really don’t like it when the fantasy is explained away, especially if the explanation carries the taint of SF. Go on, take a look at the Amazon customer reviews. There’s a common theme in many of the negative reviews: it began really well and then it all fell apart!

So here’s some advice if you’re the sort of reader who likes to be swaddled: don’t read Darwinia. And if you do read it, don’t then complain that it wasn’t what you expected!

Anyway, why bring this up now? It’s a decade since Tor published Darwinia after all. It’s ancient history. Maybe in a parallel universe Darwinia won the Hugo for Best SF Novel, but not in this one. So what does it matter? No good reason, really, except that Orb Books has recently re-released it, so now seems as good a time as any to draw attention once again to this remarkable novel.

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