Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
That spoiler warning is live, people. I am not joking around here. I am going to talk about the twist that, though fairly early in the book, is unmentioned or unhinted at in any of the cover copy or introduction. Because Darwinia is a far deeper rabbithole than its simple alternative-history wrapper promises. I understand why it got the Hugo nomination (and also why it didn’t win). With Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson has written perhaps the alternativest history of all.
So don’t say I didn’t warn you, because I have. Three times now. Turn back if you don’t want this book spoiled.
(Are they gone? Good. I can’t stand those people. Don’t tell them I said that though.)
Darwinia feels like a strange mash-up of Julian Comstock and Spin, Wilson’s two other novels that I’ve read, along with a far better scientific explanation for a phenomenon similar to what happens in Fragment. Alternative-history Wilson meets hardcore science-fiction Wilson, and the results are genuinely original and exciting. And also underwhelming.
So let’s talk about this twist. Wilson takes the simulation hypothesis to the extreme, along with the Tiplerian Omega Point proposition that we will simulate all possible futures as well as the past at the end of time. This is one of those really fascinating ideas that makes science fiction so cool, in my opinion. The idea that the universe itself could effectively evolve to be sentient is … it’s almost intoxicating in how mind-blowing it is. I don’t need to do drugs; I just read science fiction. It’s how I get my high.
Speaking of high, another thing Darwinia reminds me of is J.G. Ballard mixed up with Philip K. Dick. It has Ballard’s matter-of-fact, lone archetypal heroes set in a world that could have come from the imagination of PKD. And I’m pretty sure both of those guys got high when they were writing their SF. (And if Ballard didn’t, PKD got high enough for the both of them.)
Anyway, the twist is one of the few ways in which the Darwinia phenomenon makes any sense. Prior to that I was thinking it was some kind of weird alternative universe transposition, and we’d find out that our Europe ended up on a Darwinian version of Earth, and all those people had to survive against a frankly terrifying otherworldly planet. Instead, Wilson abandons the Lost World-esque angle of exploring alternative evolutionary paths in favour of an End Times scenario mixed with technobabble.
Unfortunately, Guildford Law—whose parents clearly did not love him enough to give him that first name—is one of the blandest protagonists ever. I understand why Caroline left him. And even when he discovers he is virtually immortal, he does nothing badass with it. The same goes for pretty much every character in this book. Wilson wants us to get excited about the war happening within the very fabric of our world, but the most I can do is a meagre “meh”. Like Guildford, I don’t see the big picture that his ghostly future-past-alternative-self tries to paint. If it’s true that there are a million other people like Guildford across the entire Archive who are being enlisted by their ghost!selves to fight the psilife, why, Mr. Wilson, did you pick the most boring person to focus on for this story?
And that’s really the downfall of Darwinia. It doesn’t matter how cool your concept our worldbuilding is: if your characters or conflict don’t strike a spark, then the rest of the story is dead on arrival. This is simultaneously one of the most thought-provoking, conceptually exciting books I’ve read this year and one of the dullest, from a story point of view. I make no apologies when I say that story has to come first. (I had a similar problem with Julian Comstock, although in that case, Wilson rescued it through incredibly quotable dialogue between characters who weren’t as boring as wet rags on an unpainted bench. Even though the story lacked lustre, there was enough decoration for it to pass muster.)
Wilson also sets himself up for failure with this galaxy-sized conflict set on an individual scale. He virtually guarantees being unable to deliver a satisfactory resolution, and that’s borne out by the twee, somewhat philosophical slant to Darwinia’s denouement in which Guildford gets to grow older.
In an alternative universe, or perhaps a simulation of this universe corrupted by semi-sentient algorithms, this book might have been a big deal for me. I can see that potential within it. But in this timeline at least, I didn’t get very excited.