Margaret (pling) wrote,

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"Natural History" by Justina Robson

(Book 8 unless I've lost count.) I read this for calico_reaction's book club and while it's been out for a while I'm pretty sure I've never read it before. But from reading the comments on Robson's guest blog in calico_reaction's LJ I see that I have in fact read stuff by Robson before - namely "Keeping It Real" which I remember liking enough to think I should keep an eye out for others in the series, but I don't remember enough to remember what it was about (other than kinda urban fantasy).

This, on the other hand, is science fiction - although not with technology that's explained. It's set at some indeterminate point in the future where humanity is spread through the solar system & is exploring interstellar space. But humanity isn't quite the way it is now ... well there's people like us, on Earth mostly, but there's also the Forged who are biologically altered to live in different environments and to do different tasks. Like being spaceships, some of which carry passengers, some of which don't. Or mining in the asteroid belt. Or terraformers. Their bodies are grown as adults only, so their minds "grow up" in a virtual world that they're not supposed to use once they're out in the real world in their real bodies. They also have a tendency to die if they're not doing their job - their bodies break down or turn against themselves.

So the ultimate in an oppressed underclass - got to work, made to work, and obviously different so it's not like they're going to be well treated by us prejudiced humans. And that's not just the un-altered humans - there's a lovely bit of mirroring where earlyish in the book we have a normal human feeling a bit guilty coz she ignored the ship whose body she was in as if she couldn't hear just because there was no avatar present to talk to. And then later in the book one of the other point of view characters who is one of the Forged notices & feels guilty about talking about another Forged in the third person even tho she's present - because there was no avatar there to make her feel "there". All this adds up to political tensions between the Forged and the Old Monkeys (as they call the unaltered humans).

The story is about the discovery of some Stuff by an interstellar explorer (Isol) - this Stuff seems to have the ability to become whatever you want it to be, and as Isol is about to die if she doesn't get out of the debris field she's stumbled into it becomes an interstellar drive capable of making some sort of hyper-jumps. And her first jump takes her to an uninhabited planet that would be "perfect" for the Forged to set up on to escape from subjugation by Earth and to become their own nation, their own organisation. The Stuff is sufficiently advanced technology so as to seem magic - even to the people in the story who are streets ahead of where we are. It operates, somehow, in 11D space - our known 4 space/time dimensions, plus 7 others.

Zephyr Duquesne is a historian and archaeologist, and an academic, and is sent off to the planet on behalf of the authorities to see if it's really as lifeless as it seems - after all, it has ruins, so it's awfully odd that there's literally NO life. Back in the solar system the new drive is supposed to be remaining only in Isol till they know if it's safe - but obviously tensions between the Forged and the Old Monkeys being what they are, the drive is fitted clandestinely to other ships by an outlaw Forged engineer (Corvax) who is also the Forged who has worked out how to provide the VR world to Forged once they're adult (which is somehow addictive & anyway they're not supposed to "need" it so shouldn't have it, according to the authorities).

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: Obviously not all is as it seems. The Stuff also, somehow, contains the consciousnesses of the race that originally made it, and of others who have joined it. And if you carry it within yourself for any length of time you join whether you wish it or not, and gradually you alter so you do wish it. Isol finds this truly terrifying as she is "programmed" to like being on her own, sensible for a lone interstellar explorer. But Zephyr & Corvax welcome it - I can see why for Corvax - he's a wreck and has been "living" in VR for a lot of the time anyway, this offers something he's already moving towards. But I'm not quite sure about Zephyr, except that her life isn't fulfilling and this would let her explore intellectually, maybe?

I enjoyed the book, right up until the end, which I found unsatisfying. I suspect that was me though - the problem with anything which ends up with something transcendent is that obviously we don't understand it as we are, it wouldn't be transcendent then. But I don't like that feeling of having missed something or not understood (and maybe I just didn't, maybe other people understand the end more?). And then I really didn't get the last chapter at all. It's the same sort of feeling I get from stuff about the Singularity - I get so far, then just "meh". But it works for other people *shrug*.

Until the end a lot of the book seemed to be about what it is to be human - all these different forms, all these different perspectives, but still human, still people. I liked the different perspectives & thought they were well done, the different sorts of people felt different and alien (particularly the POV of the Hive member and of the terraformers). And I also thought Robson showed people's mindset altering (for spoilery reasons) rather well - the reader can see it, but the person themselves is unaware.

I'll still look out for other books by Robson, but I'll probably be cautious about her science fiction, just because of my reaction to the ending of this.
Tags: books, review

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