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.