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)