This 2003 novel is the prequel to Living Next Door to the God of Love, which I've recently read and adored. Natural History is more firmly grounded in time and in space: it's set more than five hundred years in our future (and thirty years before Living Next Door), and most of the events take place in solar space. Not all of them, though: the mysterious, abandoned, earthlike planet where Voyager Lonestar Isol finds herself after an accident en route to Barnard's Star is nowhere near earth. In a sense, it's placeless.
Robson focuses, in this novel, on the Forged: cyborgs, I suppose, a deliberate blend of machine and human. The technology's come a long way since Anne McCaffrey's 'The Ship Who Sang'. Robson's Forged are asteroid miners, spaceships, terraformers, messengers (Phaeries), hive minds ... and each one of them is also a human being, regardless of Form and Function. The characterisation and insight in this novel are superbly credible. Yes, this is what it's like to be a massive creature trying to terraform a planet: this is how you'd think about the soil, the seeds, the atmosphere. Yes, this is what it's like to be utterly alone and further from home than anyone's ever been. Yes, this is what it's like to be an Unevolved human on an alien shore, abandoned except for the dubious support of a possibly-mad Forged.
I like these people. Even the ones who are essentially unpleasant. They're all profoundly human.
The point of the novel is Stuff, which is a sentient technology: it's what an earlier sentient race has become. (I think so, anyway. There's so much in this novel, in this uni/multiverse, that I kept wondering if my sense of understanding was a defence mechanism. Robson doesn't dumb down or condescend, and there are some difficult ideas in there.) Stuff welcomes humanity, welcomes it to become. Stuff is compassionate (the first sign of its sentience is when it smiles at somebody). Stuff is whatever somebody wants it to be: and it's everything that everyone involved with it has been, thought, dreamt.
They want to know, to live, to experience all lives. .. You study people throughout the ages. You wanted a thousand lives. Now you can have a billion lives, in there with them. You can be anything in a hundred worlds -- more, even. You could be me... Imagine a universe of history and life, living it all, from every angle.
The best science fiction shows the engagement of technology and humanity, and this is a prime example. Robson focuses on the reactions of those who encounter Stuff: Corvax achieving his heart's desire, his escape; Isol furiously rejecting everything it stands for, turning away, wanting to be alone; Zephyr, the student of humanity, finding a new life.
It's a very cinematic novel. Wide-screen vistas of space, the interstellar void, with Isol coasting through, 'American Pie' playing in her mind. (What it means to be Forged: you can play all of Earth's music in just over two years. But when the novel starts, Isol's slowed the song right down, a line a second.) Corvax's imaginary, unflyable aeroplane, and the house on the marshes. Rooftop parkland in a London that's still recognisable.
I'm not overly keen on the last chapter and its point of view: it feels like an afterthought and I don't know what it adds. But overall, I like the book very much indeed: an excellent example of how science fiction can explore the big philosophical questions (what it is to be human, what it is to be an individual, what price freedom etc) without resorting to infodumps or long debates.
I want to see how differently I read Living Next Door to the God of Love now that I know what came before.