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Natural History
Justina Robson
Pan Macmillan, 393 pages

Natural History
Justina Robson
Justina Robson lives in Leeds in Yorkshire, UK. She began writing as a child in the 70s. Her short fiction has appeared in various magazines in the UK and the USA. Her first novel, Silver Screen, published in 1999, was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Award. Her second novel, Mappa Mundi, won the Writer's Bursary.

Justina Robson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Mappa Mundi
SF Site Interview: Justina Robson

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

We've grown used to thinking of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution but, in the future Justina Robson envisions in Natural History, the massed ranks of humanity find themselves the Unevolved. No longer the greatest ape, they are mere Monkeys. Or so the Forged would have them believe.

The Forged are still human, at least technically, but they are also unequivocally other. Many are animal based: arachnids, hive-minded insectoids or avians (like viewpoint character Roc Handslicer Corvax). Others are vast spaceships. Between these are hybrids like the shuttle Ironhorse AnimaMekTek Aurora, "a smooth blue oval with a long, graceful tail like a gigantic airborne manta ray", and beyond even this are the Gaiaforms, unimaginably vast creatures who have rendered the Moon and Mars habitable.

Despite maintaining relatively cordial relations with the Unevolved, the Forged dream of Zion. They want self-determination so they can shake off their deterministic lives. Their bodies have been built for a purpose and to deviate from that purpose is to rebel against their own bodies. When Corvax dissents from his function and embraces a different life he is slowly eaten from the inside. The Gaiaforms have to be kept in stasis because they were designed for such vigorous lives that they would consume themselves within hours, if sedentary. This is the tyranny of Form and Function.

The first Forged we meet is Voyager Lonestar Isol and she may well have found their Zion. On a mission to explore deep space, she encounters a chunk of debris that holes her and leaves her bleeding heat into the vacuum. She is heading towards Barnard's Star, in the middle of the void, and she knows she is going to die. In the midst of this nothingness, she unexpectedly finds a piece of silicon dioxide that behaves very strangely indeed. It promises many possibilities and the first thing it delivers is Isol to a new world.

The central powers of Earth could perhaps countenance an exodus of the Forged to an uninhabited world but they are worried about the fact it seems to have previously been the home of an extinct alien civilisation. With Isol's permission (and body) they send an archaeologist, Zephyr Duquense, to make sure the planet really is dead. Robson is at pains to explain Duquense's selection for this mission but is never completely successful, striking one of the few wrong notes of the book. As it turns out though, they would have been better off sending a psychologist.

There is a lot going on in a lot of different directions. On the macroscopic level, there are the meaty topics of exploration, first contact and political upheaval but a lot of the most interesting things happen on the periphery of the complex universe Robson has created. It is a wonderful piece of world-building, located deep in the stream of New/Radical/Intelligent/Whatever space opera that everyone agrees exists but can't quite agree when it came into being. When Locus ran their special issue on the New Space Opera, it was strange to see no mention of Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix but his fecund and evergreen masterpiece is a clear influence. So too are two British writers who featured prominently in that issue: Alastair Reynolds and M. John Harrison. Of course, Robson is not Forged, so whilst the creation of Natural History is informed by these writers, it is not predetermined by them and moves off in its own direction.

This direction is principally informed, as you might expect, by some tough-minded grappling with very large ideas indeed. Natural History is very much a novel of ideas (if we are still allowed to use that cliché) and it has some of the traditional flaws of this sort of book. As with her previous work, there is something a little ungainly about Robson's prose. Mundane but acute observations and witty passages often butt heads with her more detached and functional writing. For all her merits, Robson doesn't strike you as an instinctive writer. Occasionally this can work to her advantage: for example, in Reynolds's gothic space operas the compulsiveness of his storytelling often causes him to neglect the structure of his novels, an area where Robson retains much tighter control. Which is not say Robson can't write: the type of book she has written is hard to close but she achieves it with a brilliantly written two-and-a-half-page last chapter that both distances itself and encapsulates the preceding story. There are flashes like this throughout, but the fact the prose often doesn't match her ambition makes this a good novel rather than a great one.

Copyright © 2004 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.

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