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)