by Robert Charles Wilson
For the first 100, 150 pages, I really enjoyed this book.
The concept is intriguing: in an alternate history, in 1912, the continent of Europe vanishes and is replaced by a place soon dubbed Darwinia– maybe part of another planet. Wildlands, populated by plant and animal life that bears only a slight resemblance to Earth-life. No humans; no cities. France, Germany, Austria, England, Belgium – all gone. And there are, of course, many interesting repercussions from that, but perhaps most important: no World War.
The main storyline follows an American photographer, Guildford Law, who joins an expedition into the heart of the strange new continent, looking to explore and discover what lies behind the mystery. There are some good and bad parts here, honestly; the main character is a good guy, and the other explorers on the expedition are interesting, both good and bad. The new flora and fauna are very interesting, and the political turmoil that follows on the heels of the magical disappearance of every major power at the time are definitely intriguing. I was annoyed by the photographer’s wife, who struck me as a self-centered pain in the ass, and who has her own storyline, unfortunately. But that wasn’t too bad, really, because it gave me someone to dislike while I was cheering on her husband. The expedition runs into trouble, falling afoul of bandits (who may actually have hidden motivations, and surprising allies.) and harsh conditions. Then they find this abandoned city: completely empty, apparently ancient, certainly not a human artifact. It is something different, built of enormous square blocks of stone, piled together into buildings set into a perfect grid of square angles and straight lines. Cool: a mystery! There is still another story line, with a charlatan who has somehow become possessed with an actual paranormal power: he can channel a powerful spirit, which he calls a god, and maybe he’s right. He works his way into high society, where he begins living a life of debauchery at the urging of his “god.” Meanwhile Guildford Law is trying to survive the harsh winter, trying to keep his sanity despite extremely strange dreams, and his wife is off being a pain in the ass. Everything is going well.
And then Wilson went and screwed the whole thing up. In my opinion.
There’s a twist that comes around this time, between a third of the way and half way through the book. When we find out that none of this is actually true. Not only is the missing continent of Europe explained, but so is the charlatan’s “god,” and Guildford Law’s dreams, and the mysterious abandoned city. And the explanation is crap. It’s obnoxious. Sure, it explains how the European continent could vanish overnight, and what is going on, and it sets up the rest of the book, which is a struggle between Guildford Law and others like him and a terrifying and alien enemy; but it makes the whole book meaningless. It’s as if Law suddenly found out that he’s a character in a science fiction novel by some guy named Robert Charles Wilson. It’s annoying: it feels like the kind of thing that would really amuse a stoned person – though because Wilson is clearly up on his astrophysics, it would have to be a stoned astrophysicist. Unfortunately, I am not a stoned astrophysicist, and so I prefer my novels to be set in real places, with real human characters – even if the places are invented and the characters aren’t entirely human. I can take strangeness; I can’t take the revelation that everything I’m reading is a lie.
The story goes on from there, and there are some good parts; the final battle scene in the abandoned city is great, really. And there’s a wonderful poignant moment, when innocents are killed, and your heart breaks. Good stuff. Wilson’s a good writer.
But I hated this idea. And therefore didn’t really like this book.
Oh — and “Darwinia” is a stupid name.