(2006/1979) George Zebrowski, Pyr, $15, trdpbk, 387 pp, ISBN 1-591-02341-6
It is the middle of the 21st century and technology is making life a paradise. Much of this is down to the Bulero family that was behind the development of a super strong material that was used from everything from ultra-deep deep geothermal power stations to towering megablock urban constructs. The big problem arises when it is discovered that the material is unstable and, after time, goes off with a bang. 'Humanity's last best hope' is in space with the O'Neil (Babylon V like) space habitats. Even these though are not enough for Earth's teeming population and so a new generation of self-replicating space habitats is produced. The decades turn in to centuries and the computer-human interface blurs. Throughout all this the Bulero family plays its part, its line of descendents forming a thread from now to the final human society. Ultimately advanced alien sentience is encountered and turns out to have as many similarities as differences with the by-then-developed sentient human-information complexes that have evolved. But will they all survive a changing universe and what will be their ultimate cosmological fate?
There are many ways a book can be a great one. Superb plot. Excellent characterization. Flowing prose. A combination of the afore and for SF add a sense of wonder. In addition, though, there is also that a book can contribute something fairly unique to the genre. In Macrolife's case it has got to be the latter, genre contribution combined with a sense-of-wonder. Macrolife has that in buckets; excellent characterization and flowing prose far less so.
One of SF's tropes is human evolution, especially where are we going. This has been with us since modern (as opposed to proto) SF began around the time of Frankenstein (1818) which explored an attempt to scientifically understand and practically harness life and the life force. This evolution theme was developed with seminal works like Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) not to mention popular works such as Clarke's Childhood's End (1953). Indeed today the human evolution trope, of our current physical and mental status being a transitory one with more to come, is now fairly standard (virtually guaranteed it will be featured in at least one novel each year) as well as in TV series: Babylon V and Stargate being just two recent examples. Yet most novels, and the TV series, the human evolution theme is just part of the mix. Most novels or TV series do not actually set out to seriously explore the human evolution theme in any depth. (Their values lie elsewhere.) Conversely George Zebrowski's Macrolife is one such exploratory work of an SF trope.
First published over a quarter of a century ago in 1979, Zebrowski brings together and rationalises a disparate range of developments, both actual and theoretical, taking place or being discussed at that time. The late '70s (some of you may recall) was the time of Skylab, the Pioneer probes had reached Jupiter, computing in the form of pocket calculators was just coming in and mainframes were switching from using stacks of computer cards and becoming more user-friendly with one-to-one on screen operation and magnetic program storage material becoming commonplace. Home PCs were just beginning with the BBC developing a device for school and domestic use. Cosmology was also developing and we were getting used to an expanding universe and the big bang (the 3K background was discovered just a decade earlier) all illustrated with new radio telescope imagery. It was a brave new world with seemingly boundless possibilities. Similarly there were problems. Environmental concerns abounded due to ecotoxicology from pesticides, pollution spills and population pressure. Technology seemed to be both our friend and foe. Visions for the future abounded from many social sectors, and outside of SF we got: Future Shock, The Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful, The High Frontier, The Whole Earth Catalogue and much, much more. Macrolife was just one such expression of where we might be going from just one such societal source, SF.
A quarter of a century on and US publishing house Pyr have produced a new edition for a new generation and are to be commended for it. Zebrowski's work represents, if you will, a useful synthesis of many of the hopes and dreams that abounded back then and which are still nurtured today. As such the book still resonates with the present. Having said all of this, the book is not a smooth read. You have to be up for the challenge. This is no great yarn or romp, or even a laugh-a-minute ride. But, equally, is not a difficult read either. This is a book about scope and scale and not so much about plot and a conventional tale. The characters though in the foreground, have little depth because in fact they are the backdrop to the underlying theme of human evolution and cosmological development that is actually the work's driving force and principal subject. The book is difficult to read because in this sense it is in fact written inside out. However once you have cottoned on to that you can also make allowances for the (lack of) characterization and focus on the sense-of-wonder that we humans (our current society and biological status) are but a transitory stepping stone to something as, or even more, wonderful. And as for the individual...
This edition comes with a 15 page introduction cum analysis by Ian Watson who provides as thoughtful a perspective as can be expected and which, to my mind at any rate, still adds value to the edition. The book also comes with two afterwords from the author, the second being written specially for this edition. Though Pyr is US based, copies are available in the UK, so serious and dedicated SF readers (especially those, like me, into hard SF (and it would seem Watson into the social dimensions)) can seek this out. This is one of those works (like Frankenstein and Last and First Men) that self-professed SF aficionados of the genre's written form may well want in their collection.
For another take on this novel see Tony's review.
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