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April 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Natural History by Justina Robson
Macmillan HCVR: ISBN0333907450 PubDate: April 18, 2003
Review by Iain Emsley

480 pages List price £16.99
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It would be curmudgeonly not admit that Justina Robson is a fantastic writer, capable of drawing the reader into a carefully built worlds that often defy expectations. Natural History admirably continues this tradition, yet also shows us that Robson has taken the first contact story and has written a novel that is reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow in its effects on the reader.

Humanity has engineered itself to be capable of a variety of new tasks, including space flight. At a crossroads deep in space, Isol comes across a piece of alien technology that seems to be a cure for a host of problems, both technological and social. As civilisation tries to find ways of dealing with this new information, it becomes apparent that we are not the first to come into contact with the aliens. Zephyr Duquesne, an archaeologist, is sent to the planet Taleborn with Isol by the Strategos, the head of civil order, to determine how the alien culture disappeared  and to monitor the use of the technology.

A key to this novel may come from the names of the protagonists: Isol, Strategos and Zephyr. Isol becomes a figurehead for the Evolved, humans who have been adapted, in their determination to be free from their position as the underclass to the Unevolved. Despite their technological developments, they are still seen as workers within the society. However, they are also part of a collective, drawing inspiration from the queen and Isol fights for her own independence from this. Yet as the truncation of isolation hints, this isolation is not total: she is not the isolated explorer that inhabits so many first contact novels. Strategos, the position and the man, is deconstructed from the original meaning to the accretions of time, so that he moves from tactician to planner and the main voice of the Unevolved, those humans who have no enhancements. He is less than pleased with the Evolved plan to move to Taleborn and instrumental in bringing Zephyr into the fold. He is strangely unyielding as his position dictates that he must be and perhaps is the most typecast position and maintains his own collective.

As her name suggests, Zephyr comes in as a breath of fresh air, clearing the way between the individuals, presenting a true opposition to either argument. As she is a free agent, she can negotiate her way through the social strata. She challenges the underlying assumptions and her position as an archaeologist means that she is able to look at the memories and ask pertinent questions of the facts as they are presented to her and so she is able to determine what Taleborn is. As a wind of change, she is also able to ring the changes in each character’s assumptions but to accept that she herself must be changed.

In some ways, we are presented with a standard socialist model that Robson slowly undermines, even when the term ‘means of production’ is brought into play. Whilst this informs the society, Robson ensures that it is each person’s individual responsibilities and it is only when this begins to happen that the puzzle presented by the technology is solved. However, it brings in its own problems in that the technology overrides the Individual, it is amoral and ultimately absorbs all those with whom it comes into contact. Whilst it has no agenda for control, the price for technological advance is the total loss of individuality and humanity with no second chance once the collective has been joined. Natural History is a meditation on positions, gently unweaving the ramifications.

Natural History is her strongest novel yet, reminiscent of Moorcock, Banks, M. John Harrison and Macleod, and should assure her position as being one of the most exciting genre writers at this present time. Never an easy read, her characters are closely portrayed and wonderfully believable yet she never takes an easy route. She is able to defy the expectations of the reader and to carefully dissect the standard assumptions of the reader. Lyrical and full of a sense of wonder, this is a highlight of this year.

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