Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Natural History

I’m always looking for good science fiction, but it’s damned hard to find any that’s worth reading. Most of it, even the so-called classics, is just trash that is so badly written that I can’t get past the first paragraph without wincing.

Here’s how bad it is in the genre. A while back I was reading some site where a literary agent was answering emailed questions. One person had apparently been unsuccessful in placing his scifi manuscript and was asking about the feasibility of publishing it himself. The agent replied that he shouldn’t bother, because the standards were so low in science fiction that, if he couldn’t get his manuscript accepted for publication, the novel probably wasn’t any good. So, there you have it.

And here I have it. I’ve actually found an excellent sci-fi novel, Natural History by Justina Robson. It’s set in the 26th century, where the Forged, hybrids that are part machine and part animal, but with human minds, do all the dirty work for their fully human masters. They are the enslaved lower castes of the future, and they don’t like it. A Forged independence movement has arisen and they are considering an exodus to a recently discovered, Earth-like planet. The humans have other ideas, and therein the story lies.

Natural History isn’t a difficult book, but it isn’t an easy one either. It requires careful reading. Most science fiction writers indulge in lots of exposition, explaining the fictional world that they have created, so that the reader can get oriented. Not so Robson. She drops you into her universe, and it’s up to you to figure things out as you go along. Though it demands more from the reader, I like this approach. Not only does all that exposition get boring, but it takes away a lot of the mystery. Robson immerses you in a strange fictional world that feels as weird and unsettling as it would no doubt be were you to actually find yourself there. I can definitely recommend it to those who enjoy the scifi genre.

I found out about this novel from Bookmarks magazine. I’ve subscribed to it for a couple of years now. It comes out six times annually, and it is aimed at the sort of middlebrow audience that might be interested in readers’ discussion groups. In each issue, about fifty recently published books are reviewed. For each one, a concise summary is provided, as well as a sampling from various reviews, and a brief critical evaluation. Most of the books they review don’t interest me, but I find a couple in each issue that I think would be worth a read. That’s enough for me, and perhaps it would be for you too. Check it out.


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