Review: Natural History, by Justina Robson

Justina Robson‘s Natural History is a disturbing book.

But it didn’t start out that way.

No. It had resided on a shelf since 2003 when I bought it, read the two first chapters and then put it away. That was back in the days when good ideas and advice what to read was scarce – I had yet to find a place like Librarything – and I had found her Mappa Mundi good enough to have me get her next novel, in hardback. That I was disappointed is an understatement.

Then, recently, an online acquaintance started to hail not only Robson but this book as well. Often enough I find I’m in agreement with this person on books, so I thought I’d give Natural History another try. And trying it was. Had I not decided from the start that I’d finish it this time, whatever happened, I had never persisted beyond the first chapter and a half. Not because the story was disturbing. Because it wasn’t, at that point. No, it was more than that – it was utterly unintelligible. It would take another four or five chapters before the story started to take form and at no point, not even at the end, was it possible to identify with, or like or even dislike any of the characters – this was an ideas book, through and through.

Now, in the end I was glad I endured because as the threads started to come together so did the story, and the discussion on identity, on our values and value and on alienation is interesting, not least because of the ambiguity. And the disturbing part? How did we get to the future Robson paints. Even if I can’t identify with or even feel for any of the cast I can see that a certain mindset, present around us, could lead to a place in time such as she describes.

But I’m also reminded of the fact that there’s an ocean between Intelligent and Intellectual, and Natural History is a wee bit too much of the latter, without any mitigating parts such as an interesting secondary storyline. And that’s why I can only give it 4 stars out of 5.

Considering the struggle it took to get it going that’s a good rating.

Review: River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

River of Gods is a truly collective story, told as seen through the eyes of nine different people, living their different lives. Some are people of power, some are not, but they are all played by the main, hidden, character the revelation of which is a main turning point in the tale. Some such stories can be hard to follow but this one is not. Instead it reminds me of the ideas of “the weave of time” or “life mosaic”, were a lot of small pieces or different strands all contribute to a greater picture, an image larger than any of it’s pieces. For this is a well written and expertly told tale, as told by the cybernetic fires of the future.

What makes the book so good is not the inventiveness, nor the clever plot. Sometimes when I anticipate a certain development in a story I feel *d’uh* when it finally arrives. Not so this time, nor did the truly sciencefictional conclusion feel beyond belief, even if that’s what it was. No, the true greatness of this book is the vivid textures, the smells, the cast – all interesting, capturing the curiosity of at least this reader, even when they are disgusting or overzealous or delusional. Because when they are they are human, and true to their respective character. And in the end, for all their free will, they have been goaded in the same direction, to replay a greater story…

Definitely recommended reading for anyone enjoying science fiction not for the fun and escapism but for the intelligence and thoughtfulness.

(I’ll also venture that anyone with some knowledge about India will find it interesting, whether you are used to reading science fiction or not.)

Review: Zero History, by William Gibson

Sometime in the late 80’s I found out about William Gibson, and about cyberpunk. I had read science fiction for a long time but this then new to me style rocked my world, like some kind of revelation, placing the stories in the here and now (ironically enough), and I swiftly went out for more – in fact it renewed my then largely dormant passion for the genre.

I’m not one to follow author buzz so I’ve never had any idea when a new book was due or what it would be about but for some reason I’ve been getting his past 6 books in hardback editions, and until Spook Country I hadn’t had reason to be disappointed. That one was a huge letdown, though. Felt hastily written, superficial. Today I know it for what it was – a bridge book. And for some reason I have a lot more patience with those. Especially so when the next book is as good as Zero History.

A beautifully written tale from our almost-future, today or next year, Zero History is more suspense against a backdrop of marketing megalomania than science fiction. A handful of people, all on loose ends, unrooted or uprooted, comes together, coordinated by Blue Ant tycoon Hubertus Bigend. The game he’s aiming for comes with a higher price than he’d counted on and the weave starts to unravel…

While having read the two previous Blue Ant books (Pattern Recognition and Spook Country) adds to the texture of Zero History this book could well stand on it’s own.

Recommended reading for anyone who love suspense of the action drama variety!