Darwinia

A Novel of a Very Different Twentieth Century

Robert Charles Wilson

Orb Books

Darwinia
BOOK ONE
SPRING, SUMMER 1920
"Oh ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky: but can ye not discern the signs of the times?"
--GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW
CHAPTER ONE
The men who crewed the surviving steamships had invented their own legends. Tall tales, all blatantly untrue, and Guilford Law had heard most of them by the time the Odense passed the fifteenth meridian.
A drunken deck steward had told him about the place where the two oceans meet: the Old Atlantic of the Americas and the New Atlantic of Darwinia. The division, the steward said, was plain as a squall line and twice as treacherous. One sea was more viscid than the other, like oil, and creatures attempting the passage inevitably died. Consequently the zone was littered with the bodies of animals both familiar and strange: dolphins, sharks, rorqual whales, blue whales; anguilates, sea barrels, blister fish, banner fish. They floated in place, milky eyes agape, flank against flank and nose to tail. They were unnaturally preserved by the icy water, a solemn augury to vessels unwise enough to make the passage through their close and stinking ranks.
Guilford knew perfectly well the story was a myth, a horror story to frighten the gullible. But like any myth, taken at the right time, it was easy to believe. He leaned into the tarnished rail of the Odense near sunset, mid-Atlantic. The wind carried whips of foam from a cresting sea, but to the west the clouds had opened and the sun raked long fingers over the water. Somewhere beyond the eastern horizon was the threat and promise of the new world, Europe transformed, the miracle continent the newspapers still called Darwinia. There might not be blister fish crowding the keel of the ship, and the same salt water lapped at every terrestrial shore, but Guilford knew he had crossed a real border, his center of gravity shifting from the familiar to the strange.
He turned away, his hands as chill as the brass of the rail. He was twenty-two years old and had never been to sea before Friday last. Tootall and gaunt to make a good sailor, Guilford disliked maneuvering himself through the shoulder-bruising labyrinths of the Odense, which had done yeoman duty for a Danish passenger line in the years before the Miracle. He spent most of his time in the cabin with Caroline and Lily, or, when the cold wasn't too forbidding, here on deck. The fifteenth meridian was the western extremity of the great circle that had been carved into the globe, and beyond this point he hoped he might catch a glimpse of some Darwinian sea life. Not a thousand dead anguilates "tangled like a drowned woman's hair," but maybe a barrelfish surfacing to fill its lung sacs. He was anxious for any token of the new continent, even a fish, though he knew his eagerness was naive and he took pains to conceal it from other members of the expedition.
The atmosphere belowdecks was steamy and close. Guilford and family had been allotted a tiny cabin midships; Caroline seldom left it. She had been seasick the first day out of Boston Harbor. She was better now, she insisted, but Guilford knew she wasn't happy. Nothing about this trip had made her happy, even though she had practically willed herself aboard.
Still, walking into the room where she waited was like falling in love all over again. Caroline sat with back arched at the edge of the bed, combing her hair with a mother-of-pearl brush, the brush following the curve of her neck in slow, meditative strokes. Her large eyes were half-lidded. She looked like a princess in an opium reverie: aloof, dreamy, perpetually sad. She was, Guilford thought, quite simply beautiful. He felt, not for the first time, the urge to photograph her. He had taken a portrait of her shortly before their wedding, but the result hadn't satisfied him. Dry plates lost the nuance of expression, the luxury of her hair, seven shades of black.
He sat beside her and resisted the urge to touch her bare shoulder above her camisole. Lately she had not much welcomed his touch.
"You smell like the sea," she said.
"Where's Lily?"
"Answering a call of nature."
He moved to kiss her. She looked at him, then offered her cheek. Her cheek was cool.
"We should dress for dinner," she said.
 
 
Darkness cocooned the ship. The sparse electric lights narrowed corridors into shadow. Guilford took Caroline and Lily to the dim chamber that passed for a dining room and joined a handful of the expedition's scientists at the table of the ship's surgeon, a corpulent and alcoholic Dane.
The naturalists were discussing taxonomy. The doctor was talking about cheese.
"But if we create a whole new Linnean system--"
"Which is what the situation calls for!"
"--there's the risk of suggesting a connectivity of descent, the familiarity of otherwise well-defined species ..."
"Gjedsar cheese! In those days we had Gjedsar cheese even at the breakfast table. Oranges, ham, sausage, rye bread with red caviar. Every meal a true frokost. Not this mean allowance. Ah!" The doctor spotted Guilford. "Our photographer. And his family. Lovely lady! The little miss!"
The diners stood and shuffled to make room. Guilford had made friends among the naturalists, particularly the botanist named Sullivan. Caroline, though she was obviously a welcome presence, had little to say at these meals. But it was Lily who had won over the table. Lily was barely four years old, but her mother had taught her the rudiments of decorum, and the scientists didn't mind her inquisitiveness ... with the possible exception of Preston Finch, the expedition's senior naturalist, who had no knack with children. But Finch was at the opposite end of the long trestle, monopolizing a Harvard geologist. Lily sat beside her mother and opened her napkin methodically. Her shoulders barely reached the plane of the table.
The doctor beamed--a little drunkenly, Guilford thought."Young Lilian is looking hungry. Would you like a pork chop, Lily? Yes? Meager but edible. And applesauce?"
Lily nodded, trying not to flinch.
"Good. Good. Lily, we are halfway across the big sea. Halfway to the big land of Europe. Are you happy?"
"Yes," Lily obliged. "But we're only going to England. Just Daddy's going to Europe."
Lily, like most people, had come to distinguish between England and Europe. Though England was just as much changed by the Miracle as Germany or France, it was the English who had effectively enforced their territorial claims, rebuilding London and the coastal ports and maintaining close control of their naval fleet.
Preston Finch began to pay attention. From the foot of the table, he frowned through his wire-brush moustache. "Your daughter makes a false distinction, Mr. Law."
Table talk on the Odense hadn't been as vigorous as Guilford anticipated. Part of the problem was Finch himself, author of Appearance and Revelation, the ur-text of Noachian naturalism even before the Miracle of 1912. Finch was tall, gray, humorless, and ballooned with his own reputation. His credentials were impeccable; he had spent two years along the Colorado and the Rouge Rivers collecting evidence of global flooding, and had been a major force in the Noachian Revival since the Miracle. The others all had the slightly hangdog manner of reformed sinners, to one degree or another, save for the botanist, Dr. Sullivan, who was older than Finch and felt secure enough to badger him with the occasional quote from Wallace or Darwin. Reformed evolutionists with less tenure had to be more careful. Altogether, the situation made for some tense and cautious talk.
Guilford himself mainly kept quiet. The expedition's photographer wasn't expected to render scientific opinions, and maybe that was for the best.
The ship's surgeon scowled at Finch and made a bid for Caroline's attention. "Have you arranged lodging in London, Mrs. Law?"
"Lily and I will be with a relative," Caroline said.
"So! An English cousin! Soldier, trapper, or shopkeeper? There are only the three sorts of people in London."
"I'm sure you're right. The family keeps a hardware store."
"You're a brave woman. Life on the frontier ..."
"It's only for a time, Doctor."
"While the men hunt snarks!" Several of the naturalists looked at him blankly. "Lewis Carroll! An Englishman! Are you all ignorant?"
Silence. Finally Finch spoke up. "European authors aren't held in high regard in America, Doctor."
"Of course. Pardon me. A person forgets. If a person is lucky." The surgeon looked at Caroline defiantly. "London was once the largest city in the world. Did you know that, Mrs. Law? Not the rough thing it is now. All shacks and privies and mud. But I wish I could show you Copenhagen. That was a city! That was a civilized city."
Guilford had met people like the surgeon. There was one in every waterfront bar in Boston. Castaway Europeans drinking grim toasts to London or Paris or Prague or Berlin, looking for some club to join, a Loyal Order of this or that, a room where they could hear their language spoken as if it weren't a dead or dying tongue.
 
 
Caroline ate quietly, and even Lily was subdued, the whole table subtly aware that they had passed the halfway mark, mysteries ahead looming suddenly larger than the gray certainties of Washington or New York. Only Finch seemed unaffected, discussing the significance of gunflint chert at a fierce pitch with anyone who cared to listen.
Guilford had first laid eyes on Preston Finch in the offices of Atticus and Pierce, a Boston textbook publisher. Liam Pierce had introduced them. Guilford had been west last year with Walcott; official photographer for the Gallatin River and Deep Creek Canyon surveys. Finch was organizing an expedition to chart the hinterlands of southern Europe, and he had well-heeled backers and support from the Smithsonian Institution. There was an opening for an experienced photographer. Guilford qualified, which was probably why Pierce introducedhim to Finch, though it was possible the fact that Pierce happened to be Caroline's uncle had something to do with it.
In fact, Guilford suspected Pierce just wanted him out of town for another spell. The successful publisher and his nephew-in-law didn't always get along, though both cared genuinely for Caroline. Nevertheless, Guilford was grateful for the opportunity to join Finch in the new world. The pay was good, by current standards. The work might make him a modest reputation. And he was fascinated by the continent. He had read not only the reports of the Donnegan expedition (along the skirts of the Pyrenees, Bordeaux to Perpigna, 1918) but (secretly) all the Darwinian tales in Argosy and All-Story Weekly, especially the ones by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
What Pierce had not counted on was Caroline's stubbornness. She would not be left alone with Lily a second time, even for a season, no matter the money involved or the repeated offers to hire a day maid for her. Nor did Guilford especially want to leave her, but this expedition was the hinge point of his career, maybe the difference between poverty and security.
But she would not be lenient. She threatened (though this made no sense) to leave him. Guilford answered all her objections calmly and patiently, and she yielded not an inch.
In the end she agreed to a compromise whereby Pierce would pay her way to London, where she would stay with family while Guilford continued on to the Continent. Her parents had been visiting London at the time of the Miracle and she claimed she wanted to see the place where they had died.
Of course you weren't supposed to say that people had died in the Miracle: they were "taken" or they "passed over," as if they'd been translated to glory between one breath and the next. And, Guilford thought, who knows? Maybe it really had happened that way. But, in fact, several million people had simply vanished from the face of the earth, along with their farms and cities and flora and fauna, and Caroline could not be forgiving of the Miracle; her view of it was violent and harsh.
It made him feel peculiar to be the only man aboard Odense witha woman and child in tow, but no one had made a hostile remark, and Lily had won over a few hearts. So he allowed himself to feel lucky.
 
 
After dinner the crowd broke up: the ship's surgeon off to keep company with a flask of Canadian rye, the scientists to play cards over tattered felt tables in the smoking room, Guilford back to his cabin to read Lily a chapter from a good American fairy tale, The Land of Oz. The Oz books were everywhere since Brothers Grimm and Andersen fell out of favor, carrying as they did the taint of Old Europe. Lily, bless her, didn't know books had politics. She just loved Dorothy. Guilford had grown rather fond of the Kansas girl himself.
At last Lily put her head back and closed her eyes. Watching her sleep, Guilford felt a pang of disorientation. It was odd, how life mixed things up. How had he come to be aboard a steamship bound for Europe? Maybe he hadn't done the wise thing after all.
But of course there was no going back.
He squared the blanket over Lily's cot, turned off the light and joined Caroline in bed. Caroline lay asleep with her back to him, a pure arc of human warmth. He curled against her and let the grumbling of the engines lull him to sleep.
 
 
He woke shortly after sunrise, restless; dressed and slipped out of the cabin without waking his wife or daughter.
The air on deck was raw, the morning sky blue as porcelain. Only a few high scrawls of cloud marked the eastern horizon. Guilford leaned into the wind, thinking of nothing in particular, until a young officer joined him at the rail. The sailor didn't offer name or rank, only a smile, the accidental camaraderie of two men awake in the bitter dawn.
They stared into the sky. After a time the sailor turned his head and said, "We're getting closer. You can smell it on the wind."
Guilford frowned at the prospect of another tall tale. "Smell what?"
The sailor was an American; his accent was slow Mississippi. "Little like cinnamon. Little like wintergreen. Little like something you never smelled before. Like some dusty old spice from a place no white man's ever been. You can smell it better if you close your eyes."
Guilford closed his eyes. He was conscious of the chill of the air as it ran through his nostrils. It would be a small miracle if he could smell anything at all in this wind. And yet ...
Cloves, he wondered? Cardamom? Incense?
"What is it?"
"The new world, friend. Every tree, every river, every mountain, every valley. The whole continent, crossing the ocean on a wind. Smell it?"
Guilford believed he did.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Charles Wilson