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Robert Charles Wilson
Tor Books, 320 pages

Robert Charles Wilson
From his first novel, A Hidden Place (1986), through to his latest, Darwinia (1998), Robert Charles Wilson has written a number of entertaining novels. They include Memory Wire (1987), Gypsies (1989), The Divide (1990), A Bridge of Years (1991), The Harvest (1992) and Mysterium (1994) -- the latter winning the Philip K. Dick Award. Most reviewers compare his work to that of Clifford Simak.

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A review by Neil Walsh

Sometimes in an alternate history novel the author merely explores the question of "What if?"  In Darwinia, the author explores not only "What if?" but also "How come?" and "What now?"  Wilson shows us an alternate history as well as the causes and ramifications of it -- on both the "new" path and the one we know as "true" history. Here we get to see how and why history jumped its rails.

In March of 1912, the entire continent of Europe disappears overnight to be replaced with a wild, alien jungle. The cities and people and everything in Europe are simply and suddenly gone. The wilderness left behind, although it follows the old coastlines and general geographic features like rivers and mountains, is filled with unknown flora and fauna, much of it hostile to human life. There is no apparent cause for this "miracle" -- what could possibly explain it?

The new continent is called Darwinia, intended as a slight to Darwin's theory of evolution. After all, how can evolution explain a miracle of this magnitude? It must, the argument goes, be a result of divine intervention. Well the entities behind it are certainly of god-like capabilities by human standards. But only a handful of people ever find out the true cause, and that's because they're caught between two worlds -- men living in Darwinia (where World War I never happened) haunted by the ghosts of their alternate selves (who died in Europe during World War I).

Sadly, I found the first third of the book to be the best of it. I was enjoying the story immensely, perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief at the colossal changes wrought upon Europe. Then came the first hints at the explanation behind it all, and the novel suddenly took a turn. Or rather, the story diverged, and while I still enjoyed the one path, the other had me shaking my head, wondering what I was reading. This is not to suggest that I didn't enjoy the whole book; on the contrary, I did. But the explanation of the divergent paths of history came so abruptly that it felt almost as if I had been tricked into reading one sort of story when I thought I had been reading another.

The ending, too, was rather more pulpishly shoot-em-up than seemed plausible. But here again, I am willing to forgive the shortcomings of the story because I recognize what an ambitious project it is, and I think Wilson does manage to make it work on some level.

This is a difficult book to recommend. I enjoyed it (the earlier parts most of all) and it is worth reading to the end. It has many interesting concepts and ideas and some arresting imagery. But it's a book that must be approached with an open mind. Be prepared for sudden shifts. Don't get too comfortable with what you're reading. Maybe then you won't be disappointed by the adequate finish to a brilliant beginning.

Copyright © 1998 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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