Natural History

Posted by : atcampbell | On : October 4, 2005

Natural History by Justina Robson

All 6 people present at the discussion had read some part of the book. 3 of them had finished it. Two of the remaining people were going to finish it anyway even though they didn’t really like it. None of the attendees have read Justina Robson before.

Only two of them liked the book, at least to some extent. The others didn’t like it for the following reasons.

The author’s descriptive powers are not up to par

One participant summed it up like this, and others agreed. “The author can’t carry a scene. You don’t get good visuals from her book. I don’t think her descriptive powers are up to the scene she tries to have. She was tripping over her language and not getting to her imagery. In a few places she’s got something written well enough where I can actually make a scene out of it, but in most places I can’t. It destroys the movie for me. The film cracks, breaks and pops.

For example, there was a beanstalk-like scene that sounded kind of intriguing, but I had no clear picture of how it was happening or anything. I had no concept of whether the station at the top was actually attached to the beanstalk, or just up there in orbit and the beanstalk in some other way. It was not clear to me how any of that worked. It was not written well enough.”

Another participant says it seemed to him she wasn’t clear on how it worked.

But she has talking animals! A lot of talking animals. The panoply of bioengineered wings, beaks and feathers reminded somebody of “The Island of Dr. Moreau”.

Weak science / technology

Most of the discussion participants have science, technology or engineering backgrounds, and they all got an impression she didn’t understand M-theory, which she used as an “explanation” for how an instant teleportation engine worked.

One person also was dissatisfied with her treatment of computers. “She just strung some buzzwords together without really comprehending what they mean.”

There were at least two episodes, one of them occurring at the very beginning of the book, that made the readers doubt the author’s competence in science. To tell the truth, I later mentioned those episodes to someone else who has read the book but wasn’t at the discussion, and he said that the impression they got was incorrect; those episodes don’t happen the way they thought and there are no major reasoning lapses in them. Details can be found in my review here. But the fact that several people misread those scenes probably says something about the author’s descriptive powers, or the lack of them.

Somebody was amazed that at least one review extolled Natural History as a new kind of space opera, because a space opera is definitely one thing it’s not. Other reviews praised the scientific ideas in the book as brilliant, and this made discussion participants laugh. They concluded the reviewers must have been Justina Robson’s friends.

One person said he would not recommend this novel to anyone as a genre book.

So what is it, then, and does it have any redeeming value? Here are some good points that some readers saw in it.

It is a philosophic discussion of what it is to be human

Everybody agreed this book is essentially a philosophic discussion of what is life and what is individual and what is will, and what it means to be human. That’s what made the book interesting to those two people who liked it, even though for the rest of us it wasn’t enough to outweigh its plodding style, confusing scene descriptions, and lack of interesting characters or innovative scientific ideas. One discussion participant who liked the book put it like this: “I remember feeling that attempts at how to describe things, at language, were sort of interesting. Words that people were coming up with, trying to describe the different states, were sort of interesting. There was a promising take on that interface between the cyber singularity world and how people will interact, interface, develop.”

Another said after the first 20-30 pages he was dissappointed, because at first he thought this was a SF action book. Then eventually he found the last quarter of it more interesting than the middle two thirds, because he finally recognized: oh, she is trying to talk about philosophy! He then changed gears and thought about it as a philosophy book. But if you try to think of it as science fiction, or as exploration of science-anything, you would be very dissatisfied.

Unfortunately, he thinks, some philosophical questions that the book raises were left underexplored.

For some reason, when reading Natural History I was reminded of a novel that at a first glance could not have been more different: Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Well, there are superficial similarities: an anthropologist goes to a distant planet that inexplicably looks very much like Earth, bringing only the best intentions, but knowing that she can’t help but be mislead by her deeply ingrained human assumptions. Still, a greater reason why I made an unlikely connection between these two books, is that The Sparrow is what Natural History could have been if Justina Robson had Russell’s talent for a rollicking good yarn. (Even better, perhaps, because Natural History is free of religious spin.) Mary Doria Russell wrote a science fiction book that’s as light on science as Natural History is, but has compelling characters and presents philosophical questions in a way that really grabs the reader by the throat… something that’s lacking in Natural History.

— Elze Hamilton