Darwinia: A Novel of a Very Different Twentieth Century by Robert Charles Wilson is a novel of ideas, and what fascinating, vast, and engrossing ideas they are. The novel begins in 1912 with the Miracle, a night of portents and celestial lights that changes the face of the world forever. All of Europe is gone. Every country, every person, every animal, and every tree. And in their place is a brave new world of jungles and monsters, and lost cities, a world drawn from the imaginings of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.G. Wells.
At a single stroke the Old World is lost. The Great Nations reduced to their colonies. There is still America, of course, and China. Suddenly colonialism is in reverse. Suddenly it is Europe which is the undiscovered country, and the novel follows the life of young Guilford Law, a child in 1912, as he journeys through this alternate 20th century, first as a member of a scientific expedition into this new land.
In the beginning, Wilson pays homage to the adventure stories of Burroughs and Haggard as Law and his compatriots delve deeper into the jungles of Darwinia. The sense of mystery and wonder is well captured, but there are deeper mysteries to be uncovered.
The transformation of Europe into Darwinia, the Miracle that sets this story into motion is but the tip of a larger iceberg that I will not spoil here. At about the midway point, Wilson shifts the focus of the novel towards the larger mystery and as a result the novel begins to lose more and more focus. The new world Wilson had created in the opening parts of the novel is sufficiently interesting to hang an entire book around. Even in the prologue there are hints at an entire alternative history, where arrival of a New Europe effects all of history. Wilson mentions in passing decades of stock market crashes, strikes, religious upheaval, rival Papacies, and colonial wars. These events are passed over briefly. This is not an alternate history novel, per se. Wilson is not interested in all the repercussions of his premise. He is primarily interested in the premise itself, which takes the novel step by step from a Lost World homage to an epic story of war beyond human comprehension.
As a result, the human drama and plot can seem more by the numbers. Character moments or even deaths that were clearly meant to have impact fall short and are per functionary at best. Darwinia remains a novel of brilliant thought-provoking ideas, but it becomes increasingly disjointed and detached as it goes on, leaving the reader cold and without anything to latch on to. For me at least, this is was a disappointing book, one with a great premise and great setup that ultimately failed to live up to its own promise.