Natural History by Justina Robson

natural.jpgI’ve been wanting to read Justina Robson for a while. Through novels like Silver Screen (1999) and Mappa Mundi (2000), Robson has developed a reputation for writing cutting-edge SF while still paying attention to the characters and the idea that the future is based on our present. That’s why when I finally picked up Natural History (2003), I was a little disappointed.

Natural History begins with an incident in space. Voyager Lonestar Isol collides with debris, which she soon realises is really the remains of an alien ship. But there is something else here as well, an artifact left drifting for thousands of years. It is a jump engine and allows Isol to return home… only, it is not Earth it takes her to first, but another planet, a planet Isol has longed to find – a place that could become home for the Forged and the rest of her kind.

The Forged are another form of human, who have been engineered to serve the Unevolveds; the first Forged were given the forms of terraforming starships that brought life to Mars and other planets, and now their forms range from scout ships (like Isol) to animal-like Forged who perform menial tasks on Earth. Isol is one of the most senior Forged, and a heated debate is raging on whether the Forged should be granted independence from the rest of humanity. Isol wants the planet, called Idlewild, to become a homeplanet for the Forged if they secede, but the Unevolved (and several Forged) are uncertain… they don’t trust this engine technology Isol has found, and want to know that Idlewild is safe and devoid of life before making a decision. Isol reluctantly agrees to take an archeologist to Idlewild, to discover its secrets…

Robson is often described as the future of British SF and you can see why with Natural History. She paints a vivid landscape of a future far-removed from our own, tossing around theories about the essence of humanity and transcendence. So its being a bit of a mixed bag is disappointing. The premise for NH is solid, but I found that too much of the story becomes bogged down in politics and unnecessary detail for it to be truly engaging. It’s 200 pages before archaeologist Zephyr reaches Idlewild, the most interesting storyline; the rest is filled with the politics of the Forged and the Unevolved. Many of the character arcs feel largely underdeveloped as well; one character, Corvax, undertakes a journey of transformation in Uluru, an artificial universe only Forged can access, while another, Gritter, engages in petty crime and seems pointless. Robson utilises so many character perspectives that it seems to swamp the story; the most interesting characters are often neglected for long periods of time, particularly Zephyr, who has nothing to do until she reaches Idlewild.

Probably the biggest complaint I have with NH, though, is in not believing it. Robson goes to extreme lengths to convince the reader that her Forged are human, if unlike any kind of human we know… yet I didn’t find that convincing. They’re all supposed to be Forged, but Isol and Tatresi are so far removed from Corvax and Gritter as Forged that they could be different species, not different classes; they just don’t feel real. Also, while Robson tries to draw parallels with our own times to make her work accessible, in many ways that doesn’t work either; the idea that these giant human starships would use the same language, the very same expressions as we do now, seems ridiculous, thousands of years into the future – not to mention Corvax’s journey through Uluru, trying to be Unevolved and “normal”. And the ending is abrupt as well; for a person like Zephyr, who treasures being human so much, to give that away so willingly doesn’t seem like a natural conclusion, given her suspicion of the alien Stuff and Isol.

Still, it’s not a bad novel. Robson’s talent is there and the science is cutting-edge, particularly when dealing with 11-D and creating a decidedly alien race. And in many ways Natural History pays homage to vintage SF; a story of humans struggling to find themselves amidst a strange future and the mysteries of an alien world. It’s just a pity then that the rest of the novel is weighed down by its pace and characters, and ultimately feels hollow.

Podcast of the Week: Best of YouTube

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Podcast of the Week (29/8/07)
Best of YouTube
Rating:
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Best of YouTube is probably a podcast a lot of people know about, but I thought it would be a good one to feature. It’s updated daily and features some of the best and more original clips on YouTube, making it easier to find content without shifting through the rest.

It can be accessed via iTunes or Best of YouTube. It’s a good way for parents to control what their kids see on YouTube, as most of the videos are suitable for children. And if you have an AppleTV, the quality’s reasonable when upscaled on a digital screen.

An open letter to the Turkish Ambassador

This is a copy of the letter I’m sending to the Turkish Ambassador to Australia, regarding Turkey’s ban of WordPress. If you would like to contact the ambassador in your own country, feel free to copy and change the text below.

August 29, 2007
RE: Freedom of Speech

Dear Mr N. Murat Ersavci,

My name is Christopher Levinson. I live in Sydney and I’m writing to you regarding an action a Turkish court has taken that is of great concern to me.

On August 17th, 2007, the Turkish Fatih 2nd Civil Court of First Instance blocked access to the WordPress.com domain. The ban on WordPress, a blogging platform hosting some 1.3 million blogs, was a response to a suit filed by lawyers for Adnan Oktar alleging that defamatory statements had been made about their client by several blogs on WordPress.com.

The ban has resulted in all blogs hosted by WordPress.com being made inaccessible to Turkey. I feel very strongly that this is an overreaction. I am a blogger on WordPress; I have done nothing wrong, but my readership is being impacted.

Even more serious is the fact that there are many innocent Turkish bloggers on WordPress.com who now cannot access their blogs or are being forced to use other means to access them. It is a violation of their free speech and that of readers from all over the world.

Please understand, this is not about whether Adnan Oktar was slandered, or about the Turkish legal system; I respect your country, as I hope you respect mine. But it has gone beyond that. Now it is about innocent Turkish bloggers being forced into silence, and countless others being denied the freedom to be read. The court could have ordered that the offending blogs and any subsequent offenders be blocked, but instead ordered the complete ban of WordPress.com. It’s the equivalent of closing a library because of a single offending book, rather than just removing the book itself.

Many websites and blogs on both WordPress.com and on other platforms are initiating campaigns in support of Turkish bloggers, and I am writing to you to express my concern, and to ask that the Turkish authorities reconsider their position.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Levinson.

(Included copies of WordPress Blocked in Turkey, Matt Mullenweg: Why We’re Blocked In Turkey, and Petition to Unblock WordPress in Turkey.)

5 fun Facebook apps for your profile

Facebook’s really taken off over the last year. It now has more than 34 million users and Yahoo supposedly offered $1 billion for the site last year. Part of its success is how simple Facebook makes it to stay in touch with friends, but the applications you add to your profile are a large part of it as well. Here are 5 you might like to try.

5) Scrabulous
A game of Scrabble in Facebook. It sounds strange but it’s actually a good idea; Scrabble is a game you play with friends and Facebook is a social site, so it works well, if you have enough friends.

4) Web Presence
Web Presence keeps track of your online identity. If you have a lot of profiles on other sites, or have blogs and write reviews, etc., Web Presence is an easy way to link them to your Facebook profile.

3) Causes
Causes makes supporting causes you care about very simple. You choose the causes and organisations you support and they’re displayed in your profile. It keeps track of the number of members and the money donated. You can make donations, which are processed securely and go directly to helping your chosen causes.

2) Where I’ve Been
A very useful app for anyone who travels, Where I’ve Been creates a map on your profile to show all the places you’ve visited; countries, states, etc. You can also mark places you want to visit.

1) Flixster
Flixster integrates the site of the same name and allows you to rate movies; your profile shows your favourites and you can collect trailers, show which films you want to see, etc. It also compares your ratings with your friends’, so you can see which movies you all like (or hate).

US Open Predictions

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The US Open starts later this morning, Australian time. So I guess it’s time for my annual predictions. I did pretty well last year (named 1 winner and the 2 finalists). Let’s see if I can top that. 😉

For the Men’s, well, I’ll have to say Roger Federer again. He’s clearly the best player in the world and if he doesn’t win it, it’s hard to imagine who else would. Djokovic has a chance, I guess; he’s got the game to win a Grand Slam. Nadal, I’ll probably regret saying this, but I just can’t see him winning; he’s not playing well enough right now and he’s been injurred. Which leaves Lleyton Hewitt as my Dark Horse. If he gets through the first few rounds, he could sneak through to the final. Where he’ll lose to Federer in 4 sets.

The Women’s is more open. Henin would have to be the one to beat, though, and she’s my prediction; she played her first tournament in a month earlier, and I think she won it without dropping a set. Maybe Jankovic has a chance, and Sharapova is always popular in New York, but I can’t see her winning again this year. My Dark Horse would be Ivanovic. She’s playing okay and I think she’s ready to take the next step. But Henin is really going to take some beating.

The thing which amazes me about Federer, though, is he just seems to go to another gear in the Slams. In last year’s final against Roddick he hit 69 winners in 4 sets. That’s just ridiculous; if he does that again, no-one has a chance. If he does win, he’ll have made the finals of all 4 Slams in a year for two consecutive years, and won 3 out of the 4 slams in a year three times in his career. And in his three best campaigns for the French crown, he would have lost to one man all three times – Nadal. I wonder if he never wins the French, will history remember that? How close he came, the closest since Laver? I doubt it. But Nadal surprised me at Wimbledon, so I have to give him credit too – he’s made more progress on grass than Federer has on clay. We’ll just have to see what happens.