Review: Natural History by Justina Robson
Natural History is a far future sci-fi novel with incredible science as its foundation. The book involves bioengineering, theoretical physics, artificial intelligence, and spiritual ascension. This stuff his high brow and a challenge to digest. The book is a little difficult to get through because of its dense ideas but also the story isn’t terribly compelling. Justina Robson is brilliant but it just didn’t feel like this book came together well.
First about far future: a good deal of hard science fiction is about the future. What makes far future unique is that it goes past stage 1 and 2, perhaps 500 or more years into the future to a universe that we would scarcely recognize if we visited. It requires tremendous imagination, a great knowledge of theoretical sciences and other disciplines to put it all together. It is also a challenge to create a super-advanced alien universe that doesn’t leave readers completely lost. It is not easy and I’ve struggled to do when I have tried.
Natural History combines far future technologies with several philosophical and psychological themes that are interesting. There is a concept of ascension from a being that lives in four-dimensional space to one that can inhabit seven or even eleven-dimensional space where time, distance, and individual action become irrelevant. There is also an examination of human-AI hybrids and the psychological complexities that arise out of such beings. Robson even added a virtual reality element with the Uluru, a reality where beings can create their own experiences.
The characters are incredibly diverse on the surface. Isol is an interstellar (sub-FTL) ship that encounters an alien artifact that gives her the power of FTL travel. She uses it to discover a new planet as a possible home for her mechanical brethren, called the Forged. The Forged have human minds or consciousness but inhabit mechanical bodies. There are others like her of various shapes and sizes, all machines designed for a certain function to serve the Unevolved human (us). However, their human minds desire greater autonomy and wish to end the servitude to the Unevolved. Along with Isol is the Forged characters Tatresi, Corvax, Bana, and Kincaid. All of contact with the alien artifact and experience different things.
Zephyr is an Unevolved human appointed to investigate this new planet to see if there is an alien species there or if the Forged’s claims to the planet are in fact legitimate. She discovers part of the mystery behind the artifact in the process.
There are bird-like characters, actual bird characters, ships, humans, hive minds, and agricultural cultivation machines. It is a diverse group on the surface but don’t seem to be all that different from one another personality-wise. This is an issue when they are designed to have certain psychological traits that allow them to do their job more efficiently. For example, Isol is designed to be a loner due to her job requiring long periods in deep space by herself. Yet, she seems just as outgoing as any other character in the book. In fact, she takes on the cause of Forged independence even though it goes against her solitary apolitical nature.
The political interests and psychological desires of the characters are fluid, to the point of being nonexistent. Corvax is a criminal outcast yet when an Unevolved general deals with him he turns from despised prisoner to eager research partner in two seconds flat.
The themes of spiritual ascension, evolution, and eleven dimensional space are very fascinating but inhabit a story that is a little boring. There is no real drama or suspense other than a few minor scenes. You don’t really care for any of the characters because they are plain, cynical, and don’t seem feel especially strong about anything. They are just there for the ride.
To sum up, this book has brilliant ideas and interesting themes but they are presented in a sleepy, slow-moving story. There are probably two or three brilliant novellas or short stories within Natural History, but the complete work is just not a great read. Techno-geeks and physicists will love it, but general speculative fiction readers may not. I have mixed feelings about it but in the end it was a little difficult to get through so I have to give it 3 stars.
I intend to read more of Robson’s work. Her imagination and knowledge of various sciences are rare. She delved deeply into subjects that other writers tend to do no more than a glancing blow.
I am in the middle of The Lost Symbol and Feed. After that is Ready Player One, 2312, and Bowl of Heaven.
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