Posthuman futures, utopian or otherwise, have a remote and glittery fascination, but the bumpy road that leads there can seem so much more interesting and story-rich than all that unknowable dazzle beyond the Singularity. Justina Robson has set her third SF novel, Natural History, in interesting times.
Her transitional Solar System of the future is an enjoyable jungle. The "Unevolved" billions still retain the good old human form with all its warts. Enhanced people are cyberlinked via "MekTek" implants to vast datanets and to sassy AIs who are technically regarded as nonsentient. Biological engineering has produced a bewildering variety of "Forged" humans adapted for many jobs and environments, with or without cyborg mechanical components, according to the oft-repeated principle of Form Follows Function: air and space shuttles (Passenger Pigeons and Heavy Angels respectively), relativistic interstellar probes, deep-sea and gas-giant dwellers, brainy hive communities, a plethora of more or less avian forms (we have always wanted wings), monstrous terraforming entities now filed away in suspended animation because there's no more "Gaiaform" work left for them in the system. Although to the untutored some may seem disturbingly faceless or insectile, they all have vivid human personalities.
In this context, the title Natural History is of course replete with irony. Meditating on evolution in The Firmament of Time, Loren Eiseley headed his final chapters "How Human Is Man?" and "How Natural Is 'Natural'?" Robson plays provokingly with both questions. And are the Forged more or less exploited than the Unevolved who have been denied all those marvellous functional adaptations?
The mix is made richer by the botched jobs among the Forged (Degraded and Degenerate forms), by criminals dealing in illegal VR and MekTek (the trade of another engaging viewpoint character, the renegade avian Corvax), and by a flourishing though not terribly aggressive independence movement which seeks to free the Forged from thralldom to "Old Monkey" – that's us. Only there is nowhere else to go.
This changes when the far probe Voyager Lonestar Isol has a nasty collision with an old debris cloud in deep space and finds unexpected salvation close at hand: a functioning instantaneous jump-drive. Miracle of miracles, this can be operated by mere thought, flipping Isol instantly to its default destination, a hospitable world with all the trappings of life except for life itself. She can now commute without timelag between this new stellar system and her own. The Forged Independence movement is highly interested. All too good to be true?
Yes indeed. The "Stuff" of which the jump-drive is made is very much more than it seems, a point which is glaringly evident from the outset, since what it seems to be is no more than a lump of boring old silicon dioxide: silica, quartz, rock, sand. It's a mechanism without visible mechanism, functioning in branes or dimensions beyond the familiar four, and capable of far more than being an interstellar engine. In one witty chapter a Forged hive-mind attempts analysis of Stuff and comes up with the reiterated image of a Magritte-esque painting that dynamically portrays yet conceals the scene behind. Stuff, it will emerge, is not only the means to an end but the end itself.
Meanwhile the new world reacts very strangely to attempted Gaiaforming. Its moons are artificial and enigmatic. Both world and moons seem haunted by ethereal voices calling the trespassers' names. On behalf of Earth, Isol reluctantly transports an Unevolved cultural archaeologist to inspect the planet and its city-like formations: Professor Zephyr Duquesne, the most old-human of Robson's viewpoint characters. The tension between Forged and Old Monkey is apparent as the increasingly misanthropic Isol launches a oneupmanship gambit at their first meeting: "You're fatter than I imagined."
Earlier, Zephyr's personal AI has cheeringly assured her that "you're an outdated sausage with legs and a brain whom [Isol] considers her intellectual and physical inferior." These nonhumans and posthumans stick together, and one can detect a touch of overcompensation in various – often very funny – Dickian exchanges like the above. In fact Zephyr is in slight denial about some aspects of the world she inhabits, preferring not to enquire whether her adoring pen-pal Kalu, a deep sea biologist who names jellyfish after her, has himself been adapted for his work with a Forged shape like (oh horror) a jellyfish. Excessive guilt afflicts her after travel in a sentient air carrier:
The Pigeon – how quickly she'd treated her like a ship and not a person, assuming she wouldn't be hearing what went on in her own body; Zephyr kicking off her shoes and waving her socks around in someone else's abdomen, absently rubbing a drop of spilled tea into a seat-arm, leaving a biscuit wrapper behind like a misplaced medical swab, breathing and shedding invisible loads of skin and bacteria all over the insides of someone who had only been doing her job.
There are a million stories in this crowded and fraught Solar System, but the overall narrative here points inexorably elsewhere. Just as Ken MacLeod memorably debunked the cliché of the Technological Singularity as "the Rapture for nerds", Robson's first novel Silver Screen (1999) turned a very cold eye on the already traditional SF dream of eternal bliss through upload into cyberspace. Unlike the happily "vastened" hero of Frederik Pohl's later Heechee novels, the character who chose that path in Silver Screen became something painfully, disconcertingly Other.
Otherness of a different brand is lurking in Natural History. Here, Stuff is ultimately the gateway to another, Clarkean kind of Singularity, whose transcendence entails growing up, going away, irrevocably leaving home. As with the reluctant candidates for Heaven in C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, unimaginable benefits are necessarily weighed against all the things that must be given up, including perhaps the self. Robson presents all this with wit, inventiveness and narrative verve, but without diminishment of that underlying unease. The last chapter offers an artful shift of perspective.
I greatly enjoyed the journey through this novel, but as Zephyr herself makes a point of quoting – before her adventures begin, before she has any notion of venturing off Earth let alone across the galaxy – "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." Especially when arrival will be at a bourne that, perhaps by definition, we're unable to comprehend. Justina Robson comes as close as can be reasonably expected.