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Macrolife
George Zebrowski
Pyr, 284 pages

Macrolife
George Zebrowski
George Zebrowski was born in Austria in 1945 to Polish parents displaced by the upheavals surrounding WWII. After Austria, his parents moved to Italy, then to England and to America. Living in New York City, he had his first short story published in a fan magazine. He began dreaming up a complicated saga dealing with mobile habitats carved out of asteroids. In 1969, he sold his first story, "The Water Sculptor," to a paperback anthology. From 1970 on, he made his living as a writer and editor, putting together anthologies and writing novels such as The Omega Point and Macrolife.

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A review by David Hebblethwaite

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Living on planets is a precarious business. You never know when some quirk of geology or a stray rock falling from the sky will put paid to your species; not forgetting evolutionary pressures pushing you who-knows-where, and sundry other ravages. So it's pretty much inevitable that a civilization wishing to survive in the long term (for the sake of argument, ours) must become space-faring. But what then?

We could settle on another suitable planet, but the same problems would remain to be faced again at a later date. In Macrolife (first published in 1979 and now reissued by Pyr), George Zebrowski proposes a different option: stay in space by building our own mobile, self-perpetuating habitats. These would, in effect, become a new form of life, whose basic unit would be individual human beings, just as the cell is the basic unit of a human body. They would be, to use the term coined by engineer Dandridge Cole, "Macro Life."

Zebrowski examines the development and implications of macrolife by homing in on three points in future history. The first is 2021, when the world has been transformed by bulerite, a material whose properties have made possible new feats of construction and helped bring prosperity within the reach of all. Alas, there's a problem: bulerite is unstable, a fact previously unknown because Jack Bulero (head of the family corporation responsible for manufacturing bulerite) skimped on the research budget. Now items containing bulerite are starting to explode -- and, unfortunately, most of the structures on Earth contain bulerite. Jack's son Richard and family friend Orton Blackfriar have been talking over the possibility of macrolife; but events will precipitate its development faster than they ever anticipated. Blackfriar and several members of the Bulero family escape to the orbiting colony of Asterome, a hollowed-out asteroid that becomes the first macroworld.

We then jump forward to 3000, when a number of macroworlds have flourished and human longevity on them has increased vastly; but people have found ways to fill all that time, and knowledge is the main goal of life for many. John Bulero (a clone of Jack Bulero's brother Sam, who stayed behind on Earth) is at the start of his long span, and wonders about life on "dirtworlds." He travels down to the planet of Lea, to find a primitive human people descended from macroworlder settlers. He falls for a girl named Anulka, and seeks to improve the dirtworlders' lot -- but instead his actions lead to disaster. John later investigates the original thinking behind macrolife, before the macroworlders travel to find out what has become of Earth. In the book's final section, John is resurrected by humanity's descendants at the very end of time, to make a decision that only he can: whether the species should attempt to defy the fate of the universe.

I should point out (if it's not already apparent) that Macrolife is a novel with ideas at the fore. Ian Watson provides an introduction to this edition in which he defends the book against perceived (by the imagined reader) deficiencies of character, plot and style engendered by Zebrowski's concentration on the ideas. However, I don't think Watson needs to be defensive: whilst there may be some people who find Macrolife lacking in those departments, that is their problem, not that of the book. Personally, I didn't find it so -- certainly not enough to detract from its success. Zebrowski's writing, for example, is evocative from the very first sentence ("The earth pulled him down, tugging at him like a burdensome friend"); and, though there are a good deal of expository passages, there are few longueurs. Yes, it's important to bear in mind what kind of book Macrolife is; but it's a very good book of that type -- and hence a very good book, full stop.

So, what of the ideas in Macrolife? Well, it's hard to argue with the notion that macrolife (or something resembling it) will be necessary in our civilization's future. Some of Zebrowski's other suggestions -- such as that being planet-bound is mentally as well as physically limiting to a civilization; or that individuality would not be lost in a macroworld, because the structure of macrolife would make it inclusive to all shades of opinion -- are more contentious, and can't be tested until macrolife becomes a reality. But the important thing is that they all provide food for thought.

There's a welcome complexity to the issues examined. For instance, technology is not characterized as something wholly good or bad; but, more accurately, as a potential source of both problems and solutions, depending on how it is used: bulerite may cause catastrophe on Earth in 2021, but by 3000, it can be used safely in the building of macroworlds. Zebrowski does not shy away from looking at the downside to macrolife; and there is much debate on the rights and wrongs of interfering with planetary civilizations, with no easy answers. Perhaps life on a macroworld isn't depicted as fully it could have been; but then, much will always have to be left out or skimmed over when one is covering the whole span of future time!

The Library Journal quote on the cover says that Macrolife is "one of the 100 best science fiction novels of all-time". Whilst I'm not knowledgeable enough to be the judge of that, I am sure that the book is no less relevant now than it was in 1979. Whether macrolife as depicted here will be part of humanity's future, it is good that we should think about it -- and it is good that we have such an eloquent and spirited expression of the idea as Zebrowski's novel.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.


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