Saturday, 21 February 2004

Justina Robson: Natural History (2003)

Edition: MacMillan, 2003
Review number: 1223

While Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan seem to have become established as forming the vanguard of a new school of British science fiction writers, Justina Robson has yet to gain such a level of recognition. Perhaps her novels, while sharing many of the concerns of these writers, have so far proved just a little less inventive.

Natural History is her third novel, and is her take on the ancient science fiction plot of the first alien contact. This pivotal event happens in an unusual and, as far as I know, an unprecedented way: the discovery of alien technology is made by an interstellar probe which is a combination of human and machine consciousness. The human background to the discovery is that large numbers of such human/machine hybrids (the "Forged") exist, mainly engineered for environments which are not suitable for basic human beings, who are disparaged as the "Unevolved". Many of them have been seeking freedom from the demands put upon them by the human race, and the being who discovers the alien technology is one of them. The discovery suggests to her the possibility of independence for the Forged, with their own planetary system far away from Earth; the technology she discovers turns out to be in part an instantaneous transport mechanism, which she uses accidentally to go to what is presumably the home planet of the aliens who built it. The problem is, this planet seems now to be devoid of life, though full of signs of recent occupation - oxygen in the atmosphere, and so on. The rest of the novel is about investigating this planet in the face of the complications provided by the different ideas of the Forged about how to go about becoming independent.

There are many nods to the classics of the science fiction genre, from the name Tanelorn given to a citylike structure on the new planet (see Michael Moorcock), to Star Trek, to clear influences from Iain M. Banks, and even to Casper the Friendly Ghost. There are also names adapted from those associated with real life SETI projects. This is one of the many reasons why this particular novel fits in better with those of writers like Reynolds and Morgan than Robson's earlier ones.

There are two sides to this novel - the quest to find out about th vanished aliens and their technology, and the relationship between the Forged and the Unevolved. Though the first of these strands is what brings on the crisis in the second, the two are not really as integrated as they could be. Towards the end, chapters set on the eerie alien planet - which is really well done - are more or less alternated with ones set back on Earth where no one has any idea what is happening to the explorers. This means that there are constant, abrupt changes in atmosphere, and this is Natural History's biggest flaw.

The whole novel works up to the revelation of what the alien material - which becomes known as "Stuff" - actually is. This sort of climax is quite common in the science fiction genre; since many of its stories revolve around strange objects, the discovery of their true nature is often the most important moment. However, it is often poorly handled technically; such a climax needs careful preparation, with tantalising hints to hold the reader's interest along the way which don't let slip too much of the answer, which must still be novel and surprising when it is revealed. (This is basically the same kind of construction as is involved in revealing the identity of the killer in a murder mystery.) Here, it is handled superbly well, and the answer is a fascinating one that I would like to discuss but won't because it would ruin the novel for anyone who wants to read it.

Natural History is a fascinating, well thought out piece of science fiction, and it's about time that Justina Robson got some of the wider recognition that she deserves.

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