Take a new kind of humanity, the Forged, created as part machine, part animal, part human, living uneasily with Unevolved humans.
Take the Stuff, a mysterious substance capable of becoming an instantaneous interstellar drive and a strangely-uninhabited alien planet.
Natural History is, at its heart, an experiment, working out the ramifications of an alien intervention into humanity’s future developments. It features a wonderfully-wrought cast of characters in a plausibly sketched future, a couple hundred years ago. I didn’t get a strong sense of the fabric of daily life in that future so much as the power struggles over creation – quite literally encoded into the name of guy in de facto charge of shaping Earth, Machen, and the progenitor Pangensis Tupac. Robson shows us the lines of power and the lines of information, in names as well as actions.
Moments of importance are often underlined in overwrought moments of reaction:
Corvax leaped back from the consoles, straight through his virtual arrays, and landed against the wall, smacking his back so hard with the force of his own involuntary retreat that he snapped several feathers and a minor wing bone. (33)
Overreaction such as this, rather than just reaction, was little a little too frequent for my taste, especially given the general lack of emotional reaction to the immense potential of the universe theoretically opening up for humankind. That’s also why I could never quite relate to Isol, whose journey the book is structured around more than most. But those are minor objections.
What really undermined the ultimate shape of the plot arc for me was that there was no way to show the resolution; instead, it required a chapter of info-dumping. Hard-won, it is true, but nevertheless a weary unwinding in words rather than the visualized playing-out of the fate of those with Stuff. The plot-shape is discovery, a burst of experimental effort, and a steady dying away into a much more limited vision of the likely future.
And yet – this is an impressive book, more so on re-reading than reading for me. The world building was too rich for me to process the first time around. The Forged characters and the solar system which created them are the vividly-realized background of this book. Against them, an elegantly-conceptualized philosophy experiment, in effect, can be carried out; but I deeply admired the world more than I enjoyed the story qua story.
Enjoyment isn’t everything though. Since finishing Natural History, I keep finding ways to relate it to other books. To tell you what they are would be to more clearly spell out exactly how the book ends; suffice to say, Natural History does a more compelling job of realizing the possible consequences of that kind of communication system than most which are even vaguely similar.