The Strange Tale of Alfred Russel Wallace
by Avi Sirlin
1858: The Malay Archipelago. In the remote tropics a young British naturalist, Alfred Wallace, toils in obscurity. He collects specimens: beetles, moths, ants and birds that sell for pennies apiece in England.
One night, suffering from fever and hallucination, Wallace solves the greatest mystery of the era: the origin of species. To circulate his discovery, he contacts a distant acquaintance Charles Darwin. Unbeknownst to Wallace, Darwin has been secretly penning a near-identical version of the same evolutionary theory for twenty years. Darwin soon achieves world-renown and Wallace earns, if nothing else, widespread grudging respect. But then Wallace returns to England where his advocacy for ideas ranging from socialism to spiritualism launches him on a collision course with the men at the very heart of the scientific establishment, including Darwin.
The Evolutionist tells of one man’s determination to seek out his own truths in his own unique way and the price he pays. From oppressive jungle to mid-Victorian London, this is a disturbing tale of money, class, faith and discrimination.
“A triumph of biographical fiction, an utterly convincing character study of one of the most poignant figures in the history of science. Wallace’s status as social outsider, beside the more established standing of Darwin and his connections with Lyell and Hooker (the latter represented by the fictitious composite character Newcastle), conspired to deprive him of fuller credit for his accomplished work in advancing the controversial new theory, especially as the younger Wallace chose to go through Darwin himself to present his paper first explicating it.
The genius of the novel is its convincing immersion in the language of its time, the mid-nineteenth century. Neither dense nor affected, however, the period piece reads as naturally as if its prose were our own. Particularly seamless is the blending of speech by the characters in Wallace’s circle, and the narrative voice portraying the protagonist in third person (Bates and he had a devil of a time squeezing through the narrow channel … Along the way, the pacing of action, thought and dialogue keeps us engaged in the journey, whether in the muck of the Amazon and jungles of Borneo, or the salons, courtrooms and pubs of London. Sirlin has a deft touch with visual description to complement an unerring taste (A pill of memory stuck in his throat) and ear for authentic language…
Sirlin uses his lawyer’s skills to chart the mystery of the origins of Darwin’s famous Origin of Species. While some of the blame for Wallace’s obscurity lies with his self-effacing humility, and some for an accident at sea, and still more for the constricting mindset of established science, the machinations of Darwin and his associates clearly contrived to bring Darwin’s long-simmering theory to the fore. In this drama, however, even these competitors show compassion and respect for Wallace’s acquiescence; and Darwin himself admits: Your essay inspired a clarity of vision that had altogether been precluded by my own cowardice.
The Evolutionist works as an entertaining read, as a polished literary gem, and as an authoritative expose of science’s most celebrated coincidence. The thorough research appears as it should in the best historical fiction, to make the world and its characters come truly and convincingly alive.” Howick Gray, author of Hunter’s Daughter [review: Goodreads]
“Wallace never attained Darwin’s level of fame, perhaps because Wallace’s radical ideas (including his belief in spiritualism) ran contrary to those of the scientific establishment. The Evolutionist brings to life a saga of passion for research, and the sharp divides of money, class, and discrimination. A strongly impressionistic portrait of an undeservedly little-known scientist, The Evolutionist is a raptly compelling read.” Midwest Book Review
“Brimful of factual details … This novel will appeal to any reader interested in… the lives of the intrepid Victorian specimen hunters.” Historical Novel Society
“A wide audience beyond the scientifically curious will find this an easy read and come away with a richer understanding of the rigours of early scientific research both in the field and in the halls of established theory.” Professor Gene J. Parola, author The Devil to Pay
“An exciting adventure story well told.” Peter Hobson, Shiny New Books
“Avi Sirlin has produced an enjoyable and thought-provoking work which should thankfully introduce a remarkable (yet remarkably unknown) scientific giant to a wider audience.” Rodney Munday, sculptor of the Alfred Russel Wallace wall relief in Hertford
“A vivid and gripping read.” Natalie Heng, The Star online (Malaysia)
About the author
Avi Sirlin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After graduating university with a degree in Biology, he worked in a variety of occupations, including pastry baker, forklift operator and landscaper. He’d already enjoyed fulfilling stints as house painter, taxi driver, hot dog vendor, laboratory technician, grain handler, parking lot attendant and telephone solicitor (for which he deeply apologizes, no matter how desperately he needed his tuition money). Each was interesting work, in its own way, but nonetheless he elected to seek a new career path. When Avi next graduated, he had a law degree. As a new lawyer, he first worked with a large Toronto law firm where, from his 35th floor office window, he could see the silos of Victory Soya Mills and reflect fondly on those days when he’d slugged ninety-pound bags of soybean meal all day. After a couple of years practising labour and employment law, Avi left the firm and founded his own law practice in downtown Toronto, eventually focusing upon immigration and criminal law. Fifteen years went by in a blur. Then Avi decided it was time for a change.
Avi now lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Although he still does some legal consulting work, for the past several years he has focused on writing. He has written two screenplays and a novel. He is currently at work on his next novel.
Sir David Attenborough: The forgotten story of Alfred Russel Wallace (BBC Science): On the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death, Sir David Attenborough tells the story of this extraordinary explorer and explains why Wallace is the “most admirable character in the history of science”.
Comedian Bill Bailey (Patron of the Wallace Memorial Fund) speaks at the unveiling of the first ever statue of Wallace. Unveiled by Sir David Attenborough, 7 November 2013, the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death, London’s Natural History Museum, watch here.
Listen to a short (10 minute) interview with Avi on CBC Radio: http://bit.ly/29o7Tx4
Here is another short radio interview with Avi on ABC (Australia): http://ab.co/29coBeb
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