by Robert Charles Wilson
Reviewed date: 2009 Mar 5
Rating: 2
384 pages
cover art

I find it curious that I happened to read both The Voyage of the Space Beagle and Darwinia right around the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Coincidence, or divine interventionnatural selection?

Darwinia is the better of the two books. It starts out as an alternate history: in 1912, Europe and everything on it disappears. In its place is a new continent, covered with lush primeval forests. Science is unable to explain this tragic miracle, but the world gets busy colonizing the new continent of Darwinia.

I half expected a Burroughsesque tale of heroism and adventure in the primitive lands of the new continent, but Wilson goes a different direction. He introduces us to Guilford Law, a photographer on the first major exploratory expedition to Darwinia. Through Guilford we gradually learn the dreadful secret behind the disappearance of Europe and the new continent of Darwinia.

The disappearance of Europe is An Event of such magnitude that no explanation could possibly be satisfactory. The intrigue of Darwinia is more interesting than the clinical details of the how and why of The Event. Wilson should have stuck with alternate history. Instead, he veers off into crazy land.

Darwinia is not alternate history, it's more like The Matrix. Billions of years after Earth's sun grew cold and died, the universal intelligence has created the Archive, a repository of all knowledge. Within the Archive, periods of history are replayed over and over, like a documentary film that loops continuously at a museum. Guilford Law and everyone else are virtual people in a virtual Earth.

The Archive is infected with psilife, which is akin to an intelligent, mutating computer virus. Psilife is rewriting the Archive to protect itself; the disappearance of Europe is the result of psilife activity. The keepers of the Archive are at war with psilife, and they've drafted Guilford Law to fight psilife on Earth.

Wilson writes well, but the idea is ludicrous. Seriously, he wants me to believe that the makers of the Archive can only combat psilife by drafting the virtual denizens of the Archive to fight for their cause? And oh! How precisely does Guilford defeat psilife? Why, he fights his way to the Nexus, which is a deep shaft in the forest of Darwinia. The Nexus is psilife's access point to Earth. Guilford jumps into the shaft, thereby...what? Closing the Nexus, I think. Somehow his act denies psilife further access to Earth. It makes no sense.

Darwinia offers a glimpse of an engaging alternate history, complete with a savage, untrammeled continent ready for the taking. Wilson all but ignores the primeval allure of Darwinia and presents a disappointing explanation for The Event. Darwinia is disappointing.

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