Evolution's Darling

by Scott Westerfeld

Published by Four Walls Eight Windows

290 pages, 2000

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Gender Questions

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Scott Westerfeld's third novel, Evolution's Darling, opens with a substantial self-contained prologue, "The Movement of Her Eyes." Its inclusion, despite its peripheral connection to the novel's plot, exemplifies some of this book's most entrancing qualities. Evolution's Darling is not an endless sprawl of words and pages; it's a tightly constructed tale. And yet, Westerfeld includes elements, such as the prologue, the epilogue and various small chapters, which, while not directly contributing to the plot, greatly enhance the novel. By this, to both the story's and the reader's enrichment, Evolution's Darling is elevated beyond the mere typing up of a plot. The constant tension in Evolution's Darling between story and plot is thrilling and pushes the novel beyond the conventional ending (the plot's resolution) to other, wholly pertinent and more evocative, resolutions.

Evolution's Darling is the story of Darling, an artificial intelligence, from the moment he (the masculine pronoun is Westerfeld's choice) attains legal sentience to his arrival at a subtle heaven. Westerfeld mixes a variety of science fiction tropes, sub-genres and mannerisms. Against a space-opera backdrop, he tells a rather New Wave story with a decidedly cyberpunkish attitude. "The Movement of Her Eyes" is a moving and rebellious love story that describes how Darling became sentient. The bulk of the novel takes place two centuries later, when Darling works as a prestigious (and highly paid) art assessor. While researching the authenticity of a sculpture attributed to an (artificial) artist believed dead, he meets Mira, a mysterious woman of infinite wealth. And, in the best of ways, things just get more and more complicated.

For the most part, the society in which Westerfeld's novel unfolds is both intriguing and well thought out. Here, though, resides the novel's principal -- and perhaps only -- flaw: the AIs all choose to become either male or female. Why do they limit their genders to the traditional he/she male/female polarity? And since their bodies are built from scratch, why do they choose -- and stick to -- only one gender? Why choose one at all? Why do the humans similarly limit themselves? In some speculative novels, in which sex and identity are less central, this issue is easily glossed over. However, in Evolution's Darling, with its frank and outrageous descriptions of sexual practices and its abundance of artificial bodies, the sidestepping of these related questions grates throughout.

Even today, albeit slowly, traditional conceptions of gender are being shattered by biological research, the visibility of a wide diversity of sexual mores and practices, surgical body modification and the gradual disappearance of gender-based division of labor. The adoption of rigid male/female sexual identities in Evolution's Darling, in the context of the society it speculates, demands to be addressed. It could easily have been shown as part of a conservative phase after a period of chaotic excess (or something like that), but the complete failure to address the issue, even by insinuation, is a damaging oversight. It rocks the foundations of Evolution's Darling's imagined world.

This flaw is even more baffling in light of Westerfeld's obvious influences. His prose style and his descriptions of sex are reminiscent of Samuel Delany. The fastidious personalities of his intelligent starships and his post-cyberpunk space opera setting recall Iain Banks. Both these authors are famous for the genderbending qualities of their work -- in the bulk of Delany's writing and in Banks' explosive debut, The Wasp Factory.

Part of the excitement of reading Westerfeld's novel is to see him working out his influences and using them to help shape his own voice. The staccato prose-poetry of Roger Zelazny, the "inner space" exploration of 60s New Wave, the subversive punkishness of Bruce Sterling's characters -- and more -- cross-pollinate in Westerfeld's quest for a fresh voice. Westerfeld is never simply imitative, rather, he is aware of what has come before and shows all the signs of striving for a bold new synthesis.

Despite its failure to address a central issue, Evolution's Darling situates Scott Westerfeld as a writer to watch. He's talented and erudite and, if he fulfills the promise implicit in his current fiction, will create work of increasing excitement and accomplishment. | March 2000