Natural History (2003) by Justina Robson

Available works by Justina Robson


Set in the middle of the third millennium, Natural History is the first work in Justina Robson’s still evolving series, Natural History (2003-2005?). Humanity has given birth to a multitude of sentient beings, which are leading humanity’s expansion through much of the solar system, indeed are on the verge of supplanting unevolved humans. By introducing an advanced stage of machine intelligence known as Forged, Robson turns the table on the traditional sf trope of man-machine consciousness, interrogating artificial consciousness from the point of view of engineered lifeforms.

The story follows Lonestar Isol, a sentient space ship, as she is shipwrecked on an unnamed planet 27 light years away from Earth. The planet is home to a seemingly abandoned advanced civilisation, and when Isol replaces her engine with an alien artefact it envelops her in multi dimensional space, telling her: “Isol, we were once like you”. She quickly discovers that the engine will allow her to travel anywhere instantly, but instead of bringing the technology back to Earth, she solicits the help from Forged friends of her: Tatresi, a large transport ship, and Corvax, a rogue research station, both of which can instantiate as human-like avatars. Collectively, they dream of breaking away from human control to establish a world for the Forged only, far away from Earth. The newly discovered planet quickly becomes the focal point of Isol’s aspirations, drawing in the the openly political Forged Independence Movement.

Similar to other Forged entities, Isol was originally designed for a single purpose. As an extra-solar explorer, she can process information and experience many times faster than an unevolved, allowing her for example to listen to old songs at high speed and still enjoy them in real-time. It took her only two years to listen to Earth’s entire music repertoire. Like all Forged, Isol was raised in a virtual AI nursery known as Virtua before she was embodied as a space ship. Designed according to human evolutionary principles of childhood development, instilling human sentiments in the process, she, like many other Forged, often have a sense of melancholy, the humanness deeply seated in her deprived of human stimuli, an existential conflict between her form and function. Marooned, she wants to cry but her design does not include the bodily function of tears, causing her in turn to lament that she has been designed to have human emotions. All-too-human, she is not human enough. The Forged’s longing for what essentially amounts to lost childhoods is such that many choose to visit illegally repurposed versions of the Virtua, which offer them a sense of wholeness. Corvax operates one such virtual environment known as Dreamtime of Uluru. Deeply troubled himself, he has become something of a therapist for the Forged, restoring sex to the sexless, friends to the friendless and social contact to the isolated. Quite literally, the Forged are ghosts in the shell. 

The relationship between Forged and unevolved has never been defined by open hostility though, and the Forged Independence Movement is not planning a violent break. The Forged feel they have little to fear from humans whom they have nicknamed Old Monkeys, waiting for them to die like an old grandmother. They see themselves as the natural heirs to humanity on the evolutionary ladder. Natural History in many ways pushes the narrative of Rudy Rucker’s Ware Tetralogy (1982-2000) to the next level in natural selection. From the opposite side of the table, the unevolved are in awe of the more advanced, rarer Forged, almost as if they were gods, recalling the notion of machine godhood in much postmodern space opera. 

Isol’s planetary discovery contains the seed to Living Next Door to the God of Love (2005), the following work in Robson’s series. The completely barren, yet entirely preserved planet, as if it had only been abandoned yesterday, is home to a mysterious alien intelligence which the Forged can sense but not see. It is clear that the alien entity operates beyond known dimensions, a transcendental hive-construct that recalls Greg Egan’s polises in Diaspora (1997).