Natural History – Conceptual Resolution

Take a new kind of humanity, the Forged, created as part machine, part animal, part human, living uneasily with Unevolved humans.

Take the Stuff, a mysterious substance capable of becoming an instantaneous interstellar drive and a strangely-uninhabited alien planet.


Natural History is, at its heart, an experiment, working out the ramifications of an alien intervention into humanity’s future developments. It features a wonderfully-wrought cast of characters in a plausibly sketched future, a couple hundred years ago. I didn’t get a strong sense of the fabric of daily life in that future so much as the power struggles over creation – quite literally encoded into the name of guy in de facto charge of shaping Earth, Machen, and the progenitor Pangensis Tupac. Robson shows us the lines of power and the lines of information, in names as well as actions.

Moments of importance are often underlined in overwrought moments of reaction:

Corvax leaped back from the consoles, straight through his virtual arrays, and landed against the wall, smacking his back so hard with the force of his own involuntary retreat that he snapped several feathers and a minor wing bone. (33)

Overreaction such as this, rather than just reaction, was little a little too frequent for my taste, especially given the general lack of emotional reaction to the immense potential of the universe theoretically opening up for humankind. That’s also why I could never quite relate to Isol, whose journey the book is structured around more than most. But those are minor objections.

What really undermined the ultimate shape of the plot arc for me was that there was no way to show the resolution; instead, it required a chapter of info-dumping. Hard-won, it is true, but nevertheless a weary unwinding in words rather than the visualized playing-out of the fate of those with Stuff. The plot-shape is discovery, a burst of experimental effort, and a steady dying away into a much more limited vision of the likely future.

And yet – this is an impressive book, more so on re-reading than reading for me. The world building was too rich for me to process the first time around. The Forged characters and the solar system which created them are the vividly-realized background of this book. Against them, an elegantly-conceptualized philosophy experiment, in effect, can be carried out; but I deeply admired the world more than I enjoyed the story qua story.

Enjoyment isn’t everything though. Since finishing Natural History, I keep finding ways to relate it to other books. To tell you what they are would be to more clearly spell out exactly how the book ends; suffice to say, Natural History does a more compelling job of realizing the possible consequences of that kind of communication system than most which are even vaguely similar.

Natural History – Space and Stuff

If I could instantly teleport through space, secure in the knowledge that I could safely arrive at my destination without worrying about co-occupying space with something else, and certain of being able to breath and not fall, I don’t think I would be content to do it only twice, not if the method I was using allowed for more than that. I would want to know the capabilities of the method I had found, and what wonders the universe holds.

In the first chapter of Natural History, Voyager Lonestar Isol, hurtling through space, damaged and dying, encounters what she nicknames the “Stuff”. It’s a multi-dimensional technology so advanced that it might as well be magic so far as these twenty-third century humans and Forged are concerned. In Isol’s unwitting, stubby hands, the Stuff mutates into a drive allowing for transportation at the speed of thought. And yet she only goes two places: an unknown planet, and back home to Earth.

Isol has a suspicion about the Stuff which the other characters don’t share. She knows she, personally, should not overuse it – but no one else realizes that for the majority of the book. Yet those other characters don’t seem bothered by this lack of use. They’re interested in the political ramifications of that single other planet existing. They’re interested in how the Stuff works, the seven-dimensional mathematics which may lie behind its improbable operations. They never spend that moment in wonder over the possibility that the whole universe has opened up to human exploration.

There are astonishing things and awe-inspiring vision in Natural History, but early on, the lack of wonder expressed by the characters themselves – up until one arrives on that alien planet – baffled me.

‘So, you believe this claim that Isol’s found an extra-solar planetary system?’

The Strategos glanced at the shadows of the two Orniths shifting on the blind, looking like a single monster with two heads. ‘What interests me is this machinery it mentions.’ (62)

Those are the two things which interest all the characters: a single extra-solar planetary system, and the machinery, the Stuff, which Isol has brought back from her interstellar journeying.

How can they be so blasé about the possibilities of instantaneous travel, especially when so many of the Forged to which we are introduced over the course of the story are transit ships? Even when a Forged transit ship take the Stuff on board in the form of a drive, he fails to make much use of it, even though he does not appear to share Isol’s reservations. The universe his apparent oyster, and he coasts about the Solar System.

Natural History is a book which made me feel wonder about the extraordinary things it contains; but it struck me as dissonant that its own characters so rarely succumbed to any sense of wonder about their own world.

(To be continued)

Arthur C Clarke Award Winner, 2011

Congratulations to Lauren Beukes, whose Zoo City yesterday won the juried Arthur C Clarke Award for the best work of science fiction published in the UK in 2010!

<strike>Twelve</strike> Eleven people correctly guessed the winner from the shortlist of six books. Next week, we will find out which of those twelve is the lucky winner of two short story collections, Fables from the Fountain, NewCon Press’ homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart; and Celebration, an anthology published in honour of the BSFA’s fiftieth anniversary.

P.S. Abigail rounded up reviews of the shortlist, pre-award announcement.
After the award announcement: Alison Flood at the Guardian; Paul Graham Raven at CultureLab; Niall at Strange Horizons

BSFA Award Winners

The winners of the BSFA Awards for the best works published in 2010 were awarded at Eastercon on Saturday night in a ceremony hosted by Paul Cornell, assisted by hard-working BSFA Award Administrator, Donna Scott.

Best Novel: The Dervish House, Ian McDonald

Best Short Story: “The Shipmaker“, Aliette de Bodard (PDF)

Best Non-Fiction: “Blogging the Hugos” at Big Other, Paul Kincaid (Part 1)

Best Artwork: Cover for Zoo City, Joey Hi-Fi

Thank you to everyone who nominated and voted, and congratulations to the winners!

Natural History – Cladistics

I cannot tell you exactly what my first impressions of Justina Robson’s Natural History were. I read the book a couple of years ago and failed to take notes.

I remembered it as densely-confusing in its early chapters, the world-building too rich to take in at the pace at which it was presented. (It works better the second time around.) Still, moments stuck in my mental vision of the book: Isol hurtling through space; the airplane taking off at long last; the dog under the desk. It’s strange how memory works. Two of those three images are not really all that significant in terms of the plot, but rather, are concluding images of particular threads. Isol, on the other hand, is how it all begins.

Isol is one of the Forged, created by future humanity, partially machine, partially derived from animal DNA, partially human. Isol’s body was made to stand the rigors of long-distance travel through the galaxy; her personality was chosen for its robustness in the face of years of isolation. Other Forged are part jellyfish or manta-ray-like airplanes. They are odd, they are Other, but their core of personality is human.

Robson is inspired in the ways she demonstrates how different they are. Early on, there’s a scene in which a not-much-bigger-than-human Forged is visited by a mile-long spaceship transport Forged. In another scene, an observer realizes that, although the Forged of Jupiter and Saturn are physically similar, one is miniscule, the other gigantic.

The Forged are primarily designed to live where humans cannot. They were made for deep space, deep seas, and the skies. As a result, many humans spend much of their lives without running into many Forged, especially the rarer ones. How rare do they get? The story includes at least two very rare varieties, one of whom may be the only one of his type. There are only three of the other. Fortunately for their perpetuity, they do not reproduce, but are made by an absolutely-enormous Mother-Father Factory-like parent in low Earth orbit, the Pangenesis Tupac. (The original one, long-since decomissioned, was named Eve.)

How Other are they? That debate is one of motivations which drives the plot; the Forged do not agree among themselves if they are enough like Unevolved humans to keep to the Solar System, or if they should look elsewhere for their future.

Humans are not sure either. Archeologist Zephyr Duquesne tells a student to read up more on ancient Rome, and compare its use of human slaves to the way modern humans make used of the Forged, pointing out that

“the slaves of the modern age, according to many of their political extremists, are the Forged. You might compare the situation in Rome to this and decide if you think their point is valid. What’s the point of history if it has nothing to say to the present?” (69).

Where their personalities are human, their naming echoes that of species. Isol is, in full, Voyager Lonestar Isol. Zephyr’s first Forged transportation is courtesy of IronHorse AnimaMekTek Aurora. It is very much an intentional echoing of the way taxonomy is used with more traditional species. There are a variety of kinds of IronHorses, but they are all of the same clade, all variants of some earlier Forged model.

The Natural History of this future plays out through the intersections of engineering, willpower, geography, and cladistics.

(To be continued)

Clarke Award Contest – closes tonight

Tomorrow, the Clarke Award jury will spend their day coming to a consensus on which book on the shortlist should win this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

If you would like to place your own guess as to which of the six books on the shortlist will be winning the competition this year, you have until 23:59 BST tonight to make your guess – and, if you’re lucky, win two short story collections from NewCon Press, including the just-published Fables from the Fountain, a fundraiser for the Award itself.

Details are here.

Vector 266

Vector 266 arrived with the post yesterday, along with Focus and Quantum, an occasional BSFA newsletter. It’s real, it’s approximately on time, and it might inadvertently convince recent BSFA members that Vector comes out slightly more often than it does, coming so soon on the heels of the previous issue. Really, the journal is still quarterly.

This is the 2010 year-in-review issue, featuring retrospectives on the novels, television shows, and movies of 2011, along with an article on Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon cycle, and two new column. One, (previously in Matrix) is from Terry Martin of Murky Depths. The second, “Kincaid in Short” from Paul Kincaid, is on Kate Wilhelm’s “The Infinity Box” and, bafflingly, we collectively managed to omit it from the Table of Contents, so it’s particularly important you know it’s there, starting on p. 34.

As long as I’m providing corrections: the version below includes Jonathan McCalmont’s name correctly spelled, and, where page numbers are provided, corrections to those too.

It’s also the first issue I’ve edited.

Cover of Vector 266, with HAL 2000Table of Contents

A Year in Review, Martin Lewis
2010: Books in Review, Vector reviewers
2010: Television in Review, Alison Page
2010: Film in Review, Jonathan McCalmont
Strip Club: A Fanciful Flight, Terry Martin
The Promise and Pitfalls of Christian Agenda in Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, Anthony Nanson
Foundation’s Favourites: Scholars and Soldiers, Andy Sawyer
Resonances: Alpha Centauri, Stephen Baxter (p. 32)
Kincaid in Short: “The Infinity Box”, Paul Kincaid (p. 34)
First Impressions, edited by Martin Lewis (p. 37)

I’ll post the full list of books reviewed in a week or two, when our review’s editor is back from holiday.

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

Next Year’s Art Awards

Has 2011 brought any science fictional artistic highlights with it for you? Cover art? Print? Paintings? Watercolours? Mosaics? Sculptures? What work from this year so far might you consider nominating for next year’s awards?

I left this question until last for a specific reason: Eastercon begins tomorrow. And at Eastercon – and quite likely other conventions this weekend – there will be an art show.

For those of you attending Eastercon, consider, as you walk around the art show, if any of the work there strikes you as worth nominating for next year’s art awards. Indeed, consider keeping this in mind at whatever conventions – or other venues for sharing science fictional artwork – you run across this year.

There’s nothing the least bit wrong with nominating good cover art; but it’s not the only place that good science fictional artwork is being produced.