Home Reviews Shorts Search

Justina Robson – Natural HistoryNatural History by Justina Robson is a book on humanity, on human-forged post-humans, and on their contact with an alien agent that promises another quantum leap in the evolution (or not) of mankind, all against a background of a social structure that struggles with the definition of what it means to be human. Recommended reading, I think.

Voyager Lonestar Isol is on her way to Barnard’s star. Not in a spaceship – just her, a Forged Human, engineered and bred to be able to survive vacuum and travel at a fraction of light speed, with a mind to match – “a desire to travel and meet new people fused onto a psychopathic preference for no company at all”. She won’t make it, as she’s just hit a cloud of microscopic debris – the remains of an alien explosion, still containing fragments of alien biological material. Her Ti-Skeleton and her skin are punctured, the damage will be fatal.
But. Besides the debris and biological material there is also a block of strange alien matter. Not sentient – but it shapes itself into an 11D drive, providing FTL transport in our 4D spectrum, and takes Isol to its home world – a world she now plans to take as a new home for the Forged.
Things are never as easy as they seem – the material isn’t just a drive. It changes (contaminates?) everyone it touches – and many want to touch it, for the abilities it gives them.

Professor Zephyr Duquesne, reading in Cultural Archaeology, is sent to this new world, to establish that it really has been abandoned; as a prelude to the much more difficult discussion if the Forged will/should be allow to secede from humanity.

Sorry, I won’t tell you the story – go read it yourself, it’s worth doing so. The book deals in a number of interesting (and a few vanilla) concepts; firstly there are the Forged, humans bred from a variety of genes, and amended with engines and MekTek technology. Then you have AIs, including small, personal PDA style ones called ‘Abacands’. Then there’s the aforementioned MekTek, which people wear on or in their body, or in the style of tattoos – technology to augment your body and mind.
And then there’s the politics – you get humans (‘old monkey’), you get the Forged as specialized post-humans (some of which are “sufficiently alien to the fundamental human base-template that even to their own kind they were so incomprehensible as to be distinct species”), you get the Augmented, humans who used MekTek, like the MekTek Strategos Anthony, who is “not Forged, but an adapted Unevolved human, capable of belonging to either side, or neither”; and you get the Degraded, Forged where the breeding/engineering went wrong somewhere. The entire clump forms some kind of Caste System, with most humans (of all types!)  being less than enamoured with their brethren which are different in some way. Plus ca change …
One of the big fault lines is access to ‘Uluru’, some kind of VR environment the Forged spend their childhood in (they only become aware when fully grown), and to which humans don’t have access (owing to the lack/speed of communication facilities).

This is a fascinating, engaging, and reasonably easy read, presenting an utterly believable and familiar world, despite playing in the far future and very clearly being biological space opera – one can imagine our development going in this direction.
Justina used different writing styles for different voices – some of those work better than others, but there is a great promise for the future in some of these parts, especially in her forays into poetry as a vehicle for the mood and rhythm of a chapter, these work really well.
Overall this is a very good book, maybe a tad dry in pieces, but highly recommended. Read it if you're interested in biological SF, bio-mechanics, future human devlopment, or believable ‘far-out cyberpunk’.

More Justina Robson


Title: Natural History
Author: Justina Robson
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  McMillan
Publication Date: 2003 (Hardback edition)
Review Date: 27 April 2006
ISBN: 0333907450
Pages: 330
Format: Hardback
Topic: SF
Topic: Biological


Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow


Somtow Sucharitul – Starship & Haiku


Doris Lessing – The Sirian Experiments


Thomas Pynchon - Slow Learner


Iain Sinclair - Radon Daughters


Aliette de Bodard – In the Vanishers’ Palace


Liz Williams - Empire of Bones


Ian Sales – Adrift on the Sea of Rains


Charles Stross - The Atrocity Archives


Peter Watts - Blindsight


S.P. Somtow – I Wake from a Dream of a Drowned Star City


Ken MacLeod - Cosmonaut Keep


Somtow Sucharitkul - The Throne of Madness


Peter Watts – Maelstrom


Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me, Powered by Mambo!; free resources by SiteGround