Robert Charles Wilson, Darwinia (Tor, 1999)

Life after death is a popular theme in speculative fiction. It can be approached any way from a purely fanciful manner to methods based on hard science. However it is done, the best of these stories avoid overwrought epistemological arguments in favor of a good story. Concepts are used to enhance the plot, not dominate it. It’s not enough to simply set the stage with this idea; speculating about life after death must be explored and questioned to really get the most from it. Simply put, there must be a point to including such a significant theme.

Though not immediately apparent, life after death is explored extensively in Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia. Taking more than a page from Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality, Wilson’s alternate 20th century is a simulation in a vast computer of the far distant future. This “world” was created by the living beings at the end of time. Their goal was to make a complete record of the galaxy’s history. Originally simple recordings, the simulacra of the virtual Earth are inadvertently granted true life by invading sentient computer viruses. Unpredictability, and therefore free will, is introduced by the viruses’ attack.

By attempting to reprogram the virtual Earth, the viruses introduce independent variables into the preprogrammed world. Unwittingly, they equip the protagonists with the tools necessary to defeat the attack. Once the virtual Earth is altered, its people are free to act independent of the original 20th century history. The ethics of the superbeings of the distant future compel them to intercede in the virtual world. They are obliged to defend all life, including the virtual people given true life by the viruses’ actions. Their “real” analogues use the virtual people as avatars in the war against the viruses. The viruses counter with virtual analogues of their own to achieve dominance.

Wilson’s cleverest twist lies in who become avatars. Both the viruses and the humans of the real future use virtual people who were destined to die during World War I. The reprogramming of the virtual Earth eliminates Word War I, so millions of people are left alive who should have died. Since they weren’t meant to live beyond 1918 and thus shouldn’t exist in the virtual world, they have the greatest freedom of action. By the end of Darwinia, the surviving virtual people have a fresh opportunity to chart the course of their lives. Free from the preprogrammed history, their future is unknown but hopeful. The future superbeings, obliged not to interfere once the threat is over, must leave them alone to plot their own future.

The hopeful tone at the end of Darwinia belies the ultimate futility of the entire enterprise. Like Tolkien’s Noldor, the people of Darwinia’s far distant future try to preserve a static world. They would rather enjoy and relive what was than allow growth and change. Preserving what was, instead of seeking growth or development, drains the life out of their enterprise. What’s the point of tape-recording the history of the galaxy to relive over and over like old home movies? If heat death is the ultimate future of the universe (as alluded to in Darwinia), saving a perfect recording of the past serves no point.

Re-living the stale memories of an infinitely distant past would be a joyless existence. Better the end-of-time scenarios in books like Greg Bear’s Eternity or Stephen Baxter’s Manifold: Space. The end-of-the-universe superbeings in these books reject the hollow hope of dead memories. Instead, they try to remake the universe to ensure that there is a future. Even if the future isn’t for them, they still choose hope for some other living beings rather than a stale replay of their own lives. Far better to die to ensure hope for others than cheat anyone of hope by locking up the free energy of a dead universe in a history record. The galaxy-spanning selfishness of the superbeings in Darwinia belittles the efforts of their Pinocchio-like simulations who are inadvertently granted life and independence of action.

Besides the philosophical shortcomings of the end-of-time superbeings, the viruses’ motivation is short-changed. What is not apparent in Darwinia is why the viruses chose their particular methods for taking over a virtual world. Altering history in a single flash is pretty incredible. Yet after that first step the viruses carefully adhere to consistent physical laws to see their plan through. More explanation is needed to make sense of their actions. Instead, the backstory is limited to several brief flashbacks. This isn’t enough background to explain how and why events take their particular course. More backstory or explanation of the viruses’ motives would have spiced the book up. More information is needed to really engage the reader emotionally. Cardboard villains who are 100% evil very quickly become boring.

Robert Charles Wilson starts with a great premise in Darwinia. A radical change alters the history of the 20th century, replacing Europe as an unexplored continent full of strange beasts. Wilson loses some of his momentum when he pulls in the future superbeings, their giant computer, and the villainous sentient viruses. Though a good story with an undercurrent of deep ideas (the nature of immortality, reality, and life), Darwinia ultimately fails to fully deliver. The superbeings’ goals just aren’t satisfying enough. Lacking a truly inspiring objective, the heroes are left in a predictable good vs. evil battle that doesn’t carry enough authority. Using some hard science to give Darwinia extra structure helps out, but the book would have been better served by more productive goals for the protagonists.

[Eric Eller]