by Robert Charles Wilson
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In his recent time travel/alternate history novel, Island in the Sea of Time, S.M. Stirling postulates some inexplicable event moving the island of Nantucket backwards 3,500 years. Stirling chooses to follow the Nantucketers back in time to see how they cope, never really offering an explanation of what happened or how it affected the rest of the modern world left behind. Only three months later, Robert Charles Wilson coincidentally provides a response to these issues in his alternate (natural) history, Darwinia.
The maguffin for Darwinia is the disappearance in 1912 of continental Europe and its replacement with a wild country with the same geography but unpopulated by humans. This alternate Europe, named Darwinia, is populated by strange flora and fauna, different than any which has ever existed in our own world. Wilson uses this strange continent as the background for three stories, Guildford Law on a scientific expedition to Darwinia, his wife Caroline, left behind in New London, and Elias Vale, a Washington (D.C.) spiritualist who is actually possessed by a "god."
Wilson's characterizations are not particularly strong and the reader never really comes to know any of the characters or see them interact too closely with any of the other characters. Each character is detached from their surroundings, both by events and by writing. Law shows few signs of actually knowing any of the scientists he is exploring with, and when he catches fever, it merely serves as another way for Wilson to keep him apart from his companions.
The feel of Darwinia is almost a mix between Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia (1942) and Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time" (1934). However, Wilson's work is not a period piece. His characters frequently have modern sensibilities and speech patterns. They do not seem to be locked into any given time and, in many ways, would feel right at home if the story had been set in the 1990s (the major difference being technological advancement).
Wilson does do some interesting things with the differences between our world and the world in which Darwinia appeared. Characters are permitted to have brief glimpses into our world. One learns that he would have died on the Lusitania, while others have glimpses of battles in World War I.
The four books which make up Darwinia cover a span of just over fifty years, allowing the newly found continent to stop being an intriguing mystery and instead become a part of Guildford Law's life. Interludes between books attempt, through science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, to offer an explanation for the substitution of Europe by Darwinia.
Wilson's situation in Darwinia is interesting, and what relationships he sets up offer a variety of looks into human nature even while Wilson does not fully explore his characters. At the same time, Darwinia could easily have become a travelogue of the new continent, but Wilson managed to avoid that pitfall, making Darwinia both more and less successful.
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