I’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.