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Natural History

by Justina Robson

(Tor UK, £16.99, 480 pages, hardcover, April 2003; ISBN: 0333907450. Pan, £6.99, 392 pages, paperback, April 2004; ISBN: 0330489437.)

Review by Jakob Schmidt

cover scanHundreds of years in the future, humanity slowly begins to venture beyond the boundaries of its solar system. To be successful at this and other self-set tasks, it has started to use genetic and cybernetic technology to "forge" itself into a multiplicity of new life forms. One of these Forged human beings is Isol, a living spaceship on a decades-long discovery mission into deep space. On her journey, she collides with an alien substance. Isol's discovery turns out to not only promise the possibility of unlimited interstellar travel, it also contains the key to yet another transformation of humanity. When Isol returns to the solar system, the alien substance, called "Stuff", becomes the single most important stake in the political power play between different factions of Forged and Unevolved humans ...

Natural History has been nominated for both the Arthur C. Clarke and the Philip K. Dick Awards -- and rightfully so. Robson builds upon the themes and qualities of her previous two novels: we get future technologies with a radical impact on society, some serious philosophical questions and a touch of political thriller, all carried by characters that feel psychologically complex and real.

At the centre of the action are the Unevolved historian Zephyr Duquesne and the Forged Corvax, who runs an illegal biotech-workshop in the asteroid belt of the solar system. Zephyr is the character most reminiscent of Robson's earlier work: a sarcastic, slightly self-conscious but likeable academic with an obscure area of expertise, who is overrun by the events but somehow manages to keep her head above the waterline. Corvax, on the other hand, is an outdated and damaged creature whose life makes the social problems coming with the forging technology quite apparent -- a point that is reinforced by the earthbound character of Gritter, an "unsuccessful" Forged who lives at the margins of human society. Other point-of-view characters include the living spaceship Isol, the Unevolved cyborg Machen and the drone Trini, who has to live through the traumatic experience of losing the hive-entity she has been part of for all her life. Robson uses a multitude of character voices in this novel, which makes Natural History less smooth and a little more forbidding than its predecessors, since not all of these narrative threads contribute to the plot in an obvious fashion. Some of them seem to exist primarily to serve the conceptual framework -- luckily, in the last third of the novel, Robson focuses on the central conflict between Zephyr, Isol and "Stuff" and thereby manages to deliver an arresting finale.

Besides, the conceptual framework is arresting enough in itself to warrant a few digressions from the plot proper. Natural History looks at the question of humanity turning post-human from two perspectives. One of these basically represents an old hermeneutic dilemma: if humanity changes radically, can we still describe or understand what it will become? Will the "new humanity" still exist in a way that we can relate to? The protagonists of the novel have to confront this question in its most radical form when the "Stuff" that Isol discovered offers them something that could be transcendence or death -- depending on how you look at it. The second, and probably even more interesting perspective on the transformation of humanity is more political: what does it mean for human society if classes of human beings are created whose physical and psychic structure is specifically designed to suit certain tasks? The Forged take on an ambiguous role. Occasionally, they seem to be not more than slaves to the rest of humanity -- and sometimes even less. On the other hand it is they who represent the future of humanity, while the Unevolved have to face the extinction of their way of life. There seems to be some weird rendering of Marxism at work here, with a post-human proletariat rising to its ambiguous historic role. Forged individuals like Isol literally embody the dilemma of social emancipation, their needs being at once determined by the society that made them and exceeding it.

Despite Natural History being about human evolution and transcendental insights, Robson refuses to employ the apolitical sense of the sublime that characterizes many SF novels with similar topics. This novel is no glorified evolutionary fable. Even when it addresses the idea of reaching a whole new level of existence, it remains embedded in the social and political landscape of human affairs. Or, to put it in the thoughts of the character Zephyr Duquesne: "Without a religious foundation, she wasn't bothered by any questions of an insult to God or the hubris of Prometheus that might have arisen. But she was bothered by the strong feelings of many of the Forged that attached to, in her view, legitimate complaints about their situation." This statement, which is more radical than it might seem at first glance, permeates the whole novel and makes it a true challenge to the conventions of "evolutionary" Science Fiction.

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