Cthulhu and hard sf are two branches of speculative fiction I have a dubious relationship with. The triviality of humanity in terms of terror-inducing cosmic gods seems a cheap shot (Lem, for example, examines the unknowability of the great beyond with far more integrity in Solaris), and hard sf is so often a tedious yet pointless exercise: take an element of real-world science, extrapolate, then layer on a conventional plot to ‘see what happens’. If no underlying human agenda exists, it becomes as much navel-gazing as ‘interesting scientific imagination’. This is not to say either is incapable of being utilized with more substance, only that rarely is it done. Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia (1998), a novel which wholeheartedly combines Cthulhu (in disguise) and hard sf, only confirms my stance.
At the turn of the 20th century, the “Miracle” has occurred. Europe, along with its millions of people, has been physically removed from the map and replaced with a jungle that maps the old geological structure but whose flora and fauna are not of this Earth. A New-New World born as a result, some Europeans living in the Americas return to settle the continent, even as the US flexes its muscles as the unrivaled leaders of civilization. Accounts varying as to why and how the Miracle happened, religion and science have a new point of contention in their ongoing ideological war.
A US expedition, led by the famed naturalist Finch, has been organized to explore the new continent and collect samples of the forms of life now appearing there. Signing on to the expedition is the renowned photographer Guilford Law. Leaving behind a wife and daughter, Law sets off for what promises to be an interesting if not harrowing journey. Little does he know how harrowing it will be. Partisan interests disrupting his party’s travels, it isn’t long before the expedition is in tatters. Law discovering a mysterious lost city in the middle of the jungle, however, puts a new spin on things…
There are reviews stating Darwinia is an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs. And indeed, there are a few direct references to the king of the pulp novelists, as well as a couple of indirect references (e.g. the six-legged creatures) in the story. But attributing the entire novel to Burroughs would be a long shot. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth—these and other such novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provide a broader inspiration to the setting (perhaps even Darwin’s own Voyage of the Beagle?). But if any work or author could claim to have an influence on the novel, it would certainly have to be Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos. Unapparent at the start of the story, matters slowly spiral toward cosmic monsters… much to the detriment of story. (Yes, the cover has a Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness vibe to it, but ignore that—entirely.)
In the end, Darwinia is a novel with an interesting opening premise, but also a novel which slowly, steadily, and confidently descends into pulpish irrelevance as that premise is dissipated across a broader spectrum of common sf tropes. The strength of the character portrayals progressively undermined by the cheapness of story elements, Wilson takes what could have been an intelligent, inquiring story and overloads it with bargain-basement plot devices. Cosmic sentience, psi powers, alternate history, aliens, immortality, alternate universes, and the cherry on top, an end-of-time, universe-spanning, good vs. evil battle!!! It’s just too much. Wilson switches Old World and New World in interesting fashion, and would seem to comment upon evolutionary theory given the novel’s title, but these facets go undeveloped. For as strongly as the characters are initially rendered, it all comes to fluffy naught in the end as said universe powers duke it out. Mainstream genre readers suck this type of stuff up with a straw, but hard sf Cthulhu still falls flat for me.