It’s the start of the twentieth century, the age of large ocean-crossing ships and the telegraph, when an event occurs that shakes everyone’s understanding of reality, and radically transforms the course of history from the path it followed in our world. Overnight a light is seen in the sky, communication is cut off from Europe, and then when people finally investigate in-person, they find that all of Europe has been replaced with an untouched wilderness with bizarre alien plant and animal life, and the land following only the general lines of what had existed before.
So far we have an excellent adventure story, as the main protagonist is a child when this happens, and in his twenties is part of an expedition that tries to explore and document the interior of the new Europe for the first time. Exiles and adventurers have tried to reclaim parts of the wilderness, either for their vanished nations or their own self-interest, and so the expedition has to deal with social and political hurdles as well as the bizarre new lifeforms. The informal name for this transformed Europe becomes ‘Darwinia’, a mocking reference, since events have obviously invalidated the slow-and-steady evolution theories of Darwin.
This had the potential to be an engaging novel full of adventure and mysteries, but unfortunately, about a third of the way through, there are several pages of flat exposition in which the author clues you in on what is really going on, and the twist in the plot is both unnecessary and extremely damaging to the drama of the story. From this point forward, nothing that happens really matters, and things start to get more bizarre, but it doesn’t mean anything to the reader because we’re in a world without rules. If Wilson was trying to make some kind of sense with what is going on with plot twist, he fell well short.
Without giving too much away, the story falls into a similar trap as many stories set in dreams or computer simulations–because anything can happen, to the reader it doesn’t matter what happens. If an author creates a world like Middle Earth, and lets the reader know of the rules and limitations, then it can be a stage for effective drama, even if it’s a very different kind than takes place in our world. However, in a story like Tad Williams’s Otherland, which was mostly set in a computer gone mad, it’s as possible for all the characters to be killed off in a page, as for them to pull something out of a pocket and be victorious, or for the narrative to go on for another thousand pages.
This novel won an Aurora award in 1999.