The Darkling Wood; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

David Hambling (and my own easily distracted nature) is to blame for me reading this book last February.

I was on vacation and catching up on the back issues of the Fortean Times and saw his interview with Brian Stableford. This book was mentioned, a Stableford title I didn’t recognize. (There are a lot of Stableford works of fiction to say nothing of his nonfiction and translations).

Sally Startup provides another perspective.

Review: The Darkling Wood: A Scientific Fantasy, Brian Stableford, 2016.

This is a personal book that touches on Stableford’s biography and intellectual interests and shows why he is more than a science fiction writer and scholar these days and has written more weird fiction and fantasy lately. Those interests are Decadent fiction, evolution, genetic engineering, and, as the subtitle says, the idea of “scientific fantasies”.

Our protagonist is John Hazard a biologist, an entomologist specializing in population studies of beetles. That involves counting a lot of insects over time. Boring and tedious, if useful, and it isn’t too far from Stableford’s early scientific career as he mentions in his autobiographical essay “The Profession of Science Fiction”.

And, like Stableford, Hazard got a divorce in his thirties.

Hazard is reluctantly roped in again, after a past fiasco, to help his former student and ecowarrier Steve Pearlman. There’s a proposed road expansion going through Tenebrion Wood, the Darkling Wood of the title, and Pearlman is prepared to use whatever pretext he can find to stop it. That means finding something of historical importance or a pristine ecosystem.

In keeping with Stableford’s impatience, as expressed in his introduction to The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins), for the notion of pristine nature and celebrating it, Hazard tells Pearlman he doubts the wood has been untouched by human hands since Roman times. Even hunter-gatherers exert an influence on an ecosystem. Still, Hazard is sympathetic to Pearlman’s goals and concerned about global warming, so he agrees to look at the place.

To cover the cultural and historical aspects, Pearlman’s contacted Hazard’s fellow professor Margaret Dunstable, an older academic. She’s notorious not for being a lesbian but for getting kicked out of the Folklore Society for her notions of “scholarly fantasies”, paradigms and theories that are plausibly argued by scholars but that ignore contradictory evidence. And it’s not just historians and folklorists who are susceptible to them. So are scientists. Dunstable suggests Tenebrion Wood may have formerly been called a “goblin wood”.

This doesn’t offend Hazard. On the contrary, though he’s had little contact with her, Hazard admires Dunstable and her work. In fact, he’s even thinking of doing a book of his own on the scholarly fantasies of biology, things like theories on the origin of life and the evolution of insects.

Completing the trio of investigators who set out for the woods is Helen Hearne, a post-doc in biochemistry and, Pearlman’s girlfriend. She’s also sympathetic to the notion of “scholarly fantasies”, specifically many of the theories underlying modern medicine and the mystery of how genes code for varying body structures. (Stableford’s “Snowball in Hell” addresses that issue.) 

At the wood, another acquaintance of Pearlman shows up, Claire Croley, a writer for the Fortean Times. She’s not only intrigued by Dunstable’s notion of scholarly fantasies but also the related one of “lifestyle fantasists”, people who pretend to be things like “Pendragonists and Templars” and build a way of living based on historical theories of dubious validity. This is another tie in with Decadent literature since Stableford regards some of the lifestyles of its practioneers as something similar.

But things don’t go Pearlman’s way. Hazard discovers the wood is dying and any biologist hired by the developers would figure that out. It’s under attack by Colorado beetles, an invasive species in Britain.

But is that all that’s going on? Croley and Pearlman claim to see strange things in the wood at night, and an environmental activist dies under strange circumstances. And Hazard will have a strange encounter himself.

This short novel is another satisfying Stableford rumination on many things: how the complex nature of reality gets reduced and distorted into plausible sounding stories, the usefulness of fantasy in posing questions about the world, the scientific problem of proving even a correct interpretation of an event, evolution (including the genetic dead ends reposing in the cemetery beside Hazard’s house), and the psychological phases of human life as represented by the three characters.

There are few writers as skilled at integrating scientific speculation and the philosophy of science with suspenseful plots and dovetailing multiple themes together as Stableford.

3 thoughts on “The Darkling Wood; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.