Darwin’s Theorem: prologue

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Darwin’s Theorem is a story about stories (the working title for a long time was “Metastory”) that’s also a mystery, a romance, an adventure, and various other things besides. Not quite science fiction, excessively didactic… think of it as “Dan Brown meets ‘Origin of Species’.”

It is no longer available in print or e-book.

Set in the New American Empire of the near future, Darwin’s Theorem tells the story of Jay Calvin, a defrocked mathematical biologist who has a last chance at redemption when the mentor he once betrayed is killed. The dead man’s daughter–and Jay’s former lover–asks him for help in investigating her father’s death, and recovering a missing manuscript that some want suppressed forever, and others want to use to shape the future of the human race…

It’s a complicated book, and as such, it’s got something for everyone to hate:

  • Atheists will hate it because it talks so much about god and religion, and takes the idea of god and religion being important in people’s lives seriously.
  • Bible-believing Christians will hate it because it insults scripture. And Bible-believing Christians.
  • Christians will hate it because it’s plotted around a very loose re-imagining of Hyam Maccoby’s heterodox interpretation of early Christianity.
  • Muslims will hate it because the sole Muslim character is a Sufi.
  • Catholics will hate it because it makes jokes about the Pope.
  • Australians will hate it because it makes jokes about Australia.
  • Scientists will hate it because it depicts scientists as religious.
  • Liberals will hate it because it simplifies or just sweeps away complex social issues for the sake of story.
  • Biologists will hate it because it plays fast-and-loose with Darwin, and pretty much everyone else.
  • Conservatives will hate it because it depicts their leaders as anti-intellectual conformist thugs.
  • Physicists will hate it because it isn’t about physics.
  • Historians of science will hate because it does for the history of science what Dan Brown does for the history of Christianity.
  • Casual readers will hate it because they’ll sense the presence of metafictional ironies.
  • Science fiction readers will hate it because it contains too much romance.
  • Romance readers will hate it because it contains too much science.
  • Post-modernists will hate it because they’ll miss the metafictional ironies.
  • Literary critics will hate it because it is a book.
  • People who haven’t read Dhalgren will hate it because they’ll miss the point.
  • People who have read Dhalgren… wait, there aren’t any of those.
  • Fans of Diversity Age SF will hate it because the protagonist is a straight, white, able-bodied, educated, Anglo male.
  • Philosophers will hate it because the plot keeps interrupting the philosophical dialogs.
  • Fans of Golden Age SF will hate it because it doesn’t involve spaceships or ray-guns.
  • Americans will hate it because it’s critical of American imperialism.
  • Mystery readers will hate it because the philosophical dialogs keep interrupting the plot.
  • Rednecks will hate it because it portrays foreigners sympathetically.
  • Canadians will hate it because it was written by a Canadian. It’s even written in Canadian English, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

There are many other reasons to hate it. Why not buy the book and find out what yours is?

The book is an even better deal than it looks, because it really needs to be read twice: once as fiction, once as metafiction. Dhalgren is a circle. Darwin’s Theorem is a Moebius strip: it requires two complete traversals to take you back to the beginning, to know the place for the first time.


Mid-21st Century

A mist of fine rain fell on the cluster of mourners as the coffin was lowered into the earth. Wet leaves lay scattered across the damp grass of the graveyard, and every now and then a few more fell from nearly barren branches, spiralling down through the still autumn air. A troop transport rumbled along the boundary road, the snarl of its engine softened by distance.

Jay Calvin stood apart from the group, watching from beyond a low rise in the ground. He was a man of medium build in his late thirties and dressed in a cheap, ill-fitting suit. His dark, short-cropped hair still managed to seem somehow uneven and untidy, as if he’d cut it himself with dull scissors and a cracked mirror. He looked like a wolf in dog’s clothing: groomed but not domesticated, and uncomfortable with the trappings of civilization.

He stood at rest with his head slightly bowed, but his eyes were raised to watch the ancient ceremony. He had come uninvited, and to judge by a few of the looks that flickered his way, unwanted.

“You have set our misdeeds before you,” the minister said. “For when you are angry all our days are gone: we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told.”

Jay felt his misdeeds before him as he watched the two women who stood closest to the grave, side by side but separated by an invisible wall. One looked like a younger version of the other, built along more generous lines: early thirties, medium height, her posture straight, her head held up, her shoulders square. She was crying and her tears mingled with the rain on her bare face. The older woman was equally upright, but her body was thin and hard, her face expressionless. Stoic. Her eyes were cold. Her short iron-grey hair seemed to repel the rain.

The younger woman’s name was Magdalene Josephson–“Maggy” to her friends. The older woman was her mother. The body of Christopher Josephson, father and ex-husband, lay in the closed casket.

Maggy gave no sign she was aware of Jay’s presence. He had arrived deliberately late, taking his time walking from the far entrance of the graveyard and distracting himself by reflecting on the layers of history he passed. The gravestones around him now were polished marble panels set low to the ground, but not far away rougher, older stones stood. They became cruder and simpler the closer they got to the date of the first English settlement here at the mouth of the Charles. The oldest ones were nothing more than lumps of beachstone with barely legible names and dates scratched on any conveniently flat face. Huddled in front of most of them were tiny slates bearing only dates, bitter testament to the price this unforgiving land had extracted from the dreamers who had come to build a new Jerusalem across the sea.

He tried to bring himself back to the present, but the past seemed to infiltrate him, insidious as the rain. He still remembered the first time he had met her. She had opened the door of her father’s house near the university. Expecting him, the new post-doc come to dinner.

“He’s a mad scientist,” she had quoted by way of introduction, or explanation, “and I’m his beautiful daughter: Maggy.” She stuck out her hand and he took it, shook it, instantly enchanted.

She was beautiful then. A few years younger than him, fit and graceful like the champion fencer she was. She had long light brown hair and an open face that seemed to defy sadness. Sparkling eyes set wide, her mouth always curving up in a hint of a smile. She was still beautiful today, her face almost serene despite her tears.

“All flesh is not the same flesh,” the minister intoned, “but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds… So also is the resurrection of the dead. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”

There were other familiar faces amongst mourners, noticeably older now than the last time he had seen them. He could feel hostile eyes flicking his way now and then. He made an effort not to meet them. He was here to honour the dead, not the past.

A man he didn’t recognize stood close behind Maggy, who raised a hand toward her waist at one point and then let it drop back without touching her. Jay felt a momentary pang of jealousy.

“And this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption.” The minister paused as the rain drizzled to stop and the boy holding his umbrella folded it up. “Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

Jay’s own eyes twinkled with tears, hearing that. It had been one of Chris Josephson’s favourite expressions: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” Chris would remind him of it whenever he showed up to the lab’s weekly progress meetings bleary-eyed and dopey from a late night hunched over the keyboard, chasing bugs in his code and trying to live up to his mentor’s impossibly high expectations.

“For this corruptible body must put on incorruption, and this mortal being must put on immortality. Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?”

In my heart, Jay thought. Where there’s a hole bigger than this one that gapes open to the sky wherein lies the body of a man who was more like my father than the one who begat me. There is death’s sting. In past misdeeds now beyond hope of redemption.

The mourners’ heads bowed for a closing prayer, all except hers. She still looked out into the distance. She blinked her eyes to empty them of tears but looked neither right nor left. He wondered if he wanted her to see him. Maybe he could slip away at the end, unnoticed, unremarked. Maybe he could walk on water, too.

Without so much as acknowledging the others’ existence, Maggy and her mother both stepped forward to lift waiting shovels and cast lumps of sodden earth into the grave as the minister intoned the words, “Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”

The sun was starting to make itself felt through the mist by the time the ceremony was finally done. The little group maintained a brief cohesion as it swirled and turned in on itself while goodbyes were said, last handshakes and hugs exchanged, and then it began to disperse like a snowflake melting in the rising warmth.

Irfan, his old friend, lab-mate and sometime antagonist turned toward Jay. His incongruously blue eyes stared across the space between them. His stance was open, uncertain. Ten years is a long time to stay angry at someone whose life you’ve saved and who has returned the favour. Finally the tall Scots-Persian gave a little shrug and flicked out one hand from the wrist, the briefest acknowledgement of Jay’s right to be there and the impossibility of the situation. Jay shrugged back, still waiting for something as Irfan’s pale, stout companion turned and claimed him, shooting Jay a hard look, more in anger than in sorrow. They moved away, holding hands and not speaking to each other. Irfan cast one last look over his retreating shoulder and shrugged again. Jay nodded in reply.

A minute passed, and he started to walk toward her, drawn forward as if by something outside of himself. The damp grass was soft and slippery under his feet.

Everyone else was moving away by the time he reached the foot of the grave. She had shrugged off her unknown companion. The minister was escorting her mother back to a waiting car, speaking words of comfort that Jay knew would at most irritate the older woman. As Irfan might have said, Peggy Josephson could be stoic for England.

They moved out of earshot, leaving Jay and Maggy in silence.

She still looked out over the grave to where pale blue sky was starting to show between the trees. The damp air seemed to glow in the autumnal sunlight.


She still didn’t look at him, but said in a clear, quiet voice, “He forgave you, Jay.”

He looked into the dark rectangular hole.

“I didn’t,” he replied.

That was all he could say. He turned away, unable to look at her any more, and walked back through the alleys of the dead, past the stones of his ancestors and all their murdered dreams.

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