Darwinia is disappointing, but only because it is so damn good for the first two-thirds of its length. In 1912, the world experiences what comes to be called the Miracle. The British Isles and continental Europe have vanished inexplicably, replaced by a baffling, primordial jungle land that seems right out of Verne's Mysterious Island. To many at the time, this seems an undeniably supernatural or divine act, causing much scientific advancement in evolution and paleontology to fall by the wayside. Yet there are many who haven't yet thrown the baby out with the bathwater. After all, it certainly does appear that the enigmatic flora and fauna of the new land named Darwinia — a name bestowed with intentional irony by an evolution-denying public — has a past of its own.
Guilford Law joins an expedition into the heart of the continent as its official photographer. They are led by a stern, dogmatic figure who has become a leading light in the new, creationism-based "Noachian" sciences. These scenes are glorious, with Wilson really capturing the feel of an old-school pulp adventure. As an homage to Burroughs (who is referenced throughout; in this book, Burroughs is alive and writing a somewhat different series of Barsoom novels), it really evokes the sense of wonder, terror and ineffable mystery that you always want stories of discovery to evoke.
But when the expedition comes to grief within the rubble-strewn streets of an abandoned ancient city, things begin to crumble when they should be peaking. First there comes a shift in the book's tone, from Argosy-style action adventure to techy hard SF, that is nearly whiplash-inducing. We begin to learn exactly what the Miracle was, and how it come about, and why. This is initially bewildering, then interesting when the details of what's actually happening in the outside universe become clear, but ultimately banal.
For where Darwinia ends up, from its origin as a pulp adventure pastiche, is something akin to a hard SFnal variant on traditional epic fantasy, or even a Christian eschatological novel. On the one hand, this isn't entirely thematically inappropriate, since one of the story's themes involves exploring how religious ideology has come to bias the sciences in the wake of the Miracle. And yet, when your book wraps up with a battle scene in which the "god-ridden" good guys are duking it out with monstrous, "demon-ridden" bad guys, it's more than a little disappointing that a story with the potential to do so much more has fallen back on laying the fate of the universe upon the outcome of just another apocalyptic good-vs.-evil fragfest.
Other narrative choices fail to fulfill their potential. In the book's final third, the story leaps ahead 25 years, then another 20. New characters we're meant to care about are introduced, then killed before we've had a chance to develop the investment we need to make us care. Similarly, villians we have been tracking throughout the novel never become the three-dimensional characters we keep hoping they'll become. And so we never feel any sense of threat when they appear. The threat to Guilford, our heroes, and indeed the world itself, always feels a little remote. What's at stake in the story is literally everything, but Wilson never makes us feel like it's at stake for us. And that's kind of the book in a nutshell.
Many of this novel's concepts and themes would be recycled and refined later by Wilson for the book that would be his masterpiece, 2005's Spin. If, ultimately, Darwinia can be seen as something like a dress rehearsal for that novel, then it filled its niche in Wilson's evolution as a truly great SF storyteller.