May. 30th, 2017

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As I've probably mentioned already, I've been making a conscious effort to read more SFF by women writers recently, and Justina Robson was someone I'd seen mentioned as being worth trying, so when I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop last summer I thought I'd give it a try*.

Natual History is an exploration of ideas of transhumanism. It's set in a future where "the human race" has expanded to include the Forged, human minds in biological-mechanical hybrid bodies, some mimicking animals, others machines (two of the central characters are basically spaceships, one a solo exploration vessel and the other a cargo carrier). Even among the "Unevolved", many people have technological augmentations. There are longstanding tensions between the Forged and the Unevolved around the Forged's place in society, particularly those who may have outlived their original purpose (such as the vast terraformers who made the Moon and Mars habitable).

On top of this background, Robson adds a classic first contact story. Isol, a deep-space explorer, encounters a strange lump of "Stuff", apparently inert at first but which allows her to create an instantaneous travel engine, and then discovers a mysterious Earth-like planet which appears to be its origin, and the novel follows several characters as the human race attempts to understand the nature of the Stuff and deal with the consequences of its discovery.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. Partly this is because I really struggled with the worldbuilding; unlike when I read Too Like the Lightning and found it exhilarating to try to understand the strange new world Ada Palmer had created, reading Natural History felt like hard work. There was a lot of invented jargon, different types of Forged humans and institutions and processes and I really struggled to take it all in and make any sense of it at all. I also felt that the pacing wasn't quite right; it's quite a short book, at just under 400 pages, and there was a lot of setup to create a number of plot threads which all then seemed to be resolved very quickly, so I couldn't help feeling that it might have been better with more space to develop the story (or perhaps less setup; I definitely enjoyed the last hundred pages or so, once the plot really started moving, more than the start). Most of the characters feel very underdeveloped, and even the two who are given more time don't quite seem fully realised. This is a novel that's full of interesting ideas, but I didn't think the execution quite lived up to the concept.


*How many of my book reviews start "when I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop"? Probably most of the ones that aren't reviews of Kindle books...

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