Macrolife by Zebrowski, George, 1979

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It's not often that I read a book for the first time and say "WOW, that blew me away!" At least I don't say it often these days. I recall that I said that a lot when I was a kid, but either my tolerances have gone up or the quality in general for SF has gone down, and I rarely get moved lately, unless I happen to open an older book for the first time. I wish I could say that this week's review is of a newer book, but its not. Macrolife, by George Zebrowski, was first published in 1979. This one reads a bit like a cross between Larry Niven and Frank Herbert, in that it is loaded with social engineering and physics both. It was a bit light on character, but the second novella more than made up for any weaknesses. Three out of five stars.

Macrolife starts off like a catastrophe book, but before too long takes a sharp right into some heretofore unexamined aspects of futurity. It's the story of certain members of the Bulero family. In the previous generation the patriarch of the family, Juan, invented a material called Bulerite which was immensely strong and flexible, cheap to manufacture, could be molded easily into any shape, and could be attached without any fasteners. It soon became the standard for construction of just about everything on Earth, and before too long Bulerite allowed arcologies and near space manufacturing to become a reality, which in turn led to a clean environment, lower population density outside the arcologies, and eventually colonization of Mars, the Moon and Jovian satellites. Because of the invention of this one product humanity felt like it was on the way to Utopia, despite the fact that there were still "have" and "have-not" nations on the Earth. But before things went too far an unexpected property of Bulerite virtually destroyed the Earth overnight. Very few people got off Earth in time, and most of those that did made their way to a place called Asterome, a hallowed out asteroid arcology floating in space.

Once there, and after having passed through the social convulsions that invariable occur after a calamity, the crew of Asterome decided to give up on planet-side life and make a permanent habitat out of their asteroid. Called "macrolife," Asterome was transformed into a city-state in space that was capable of supporting over 1 million persons. The idea was this: Macrolife is capable not only of sustaining large numbers of people, but it is self sufficient in terms of food production, energy production, and access to raw materials, because it could take all it's material needs from uninhabited planets and from space itself. Asterome could also build up its outer shell, then strip that shell, giving birth to a macrolife progeny. This property of macrolife stabilized society so that once social division begins to occur the occupants could just stop and strip off those outer layers and separate from those with different outlooks. Thus war and conflict are largely avoided, as well as the risks from asteroids and stellar instability inherent in planet-bound existence, or "dirtlife."

Zebrowski's book is divided into three novellas: Sunspace: 2021, Macrolife: 3000, and The Dream of Time. The third takes place 100 billion years after the first two novellas and the first two take place in their titular years. By far the second novella is the best of the three. As I read Sunspace, I felt a strong tug towards Zebrowski's ideas. His discussions of sustainable ecosystems that had the flexibility of star ships and limitless diversity between millions of hollow terraformed asteroids was truly elating, but in the end, he failed to give me any characters to share that joy with me. I'm not saying that the characters weren't motivated by their passions, or that they didn't seem to believe in the goodness of what they were doing, or even that they had motivations other than the salvation and boosting of our race. But in the end Zebrowski just flat out failed to show them in heightened states of emotion or show any pride in what they had accomplished. It was like watching something amazing all alone with nobody to share it with. Personally I don't feel that books can be shared "in the moment" the way that a movie can. So for that reason I really rely on good characterization, so I can feel like there is someone there with me. Here, it was me and me alone. And that is a terrible shame, because this book in all other respects has the hallmarks of a true masterpiece of science fiction.

Macrolife: 3000 is another story altogether. In it one of the supporting characters from the first novella is cloned and brought back as a normal human named John. He is surrounded by genetically advanced and post-human species that have brought him back to experience something new to them. Since John really has nothing in common with his makers, he never felt at home on Asterome. Asterome ultimately comes to a star where a planet named Lea was established as a colony of Earth a short time after the cataclysm that gave birth to macrolife. John, depressed with his situation, goes alone to Lea and meets and falls in love with a woman from a local tribe. The people there had devolved socially. John camps on the planet for a long time as Asterome peels off a new habitat, but the tribe is attacked by its bronze-age neighbors. John watches as his wife is clubbed to death, and returns to Asterome a broken man, having given up completely not only on macrolife but on humanity itself. Asterome and its child then set course for Sol system, and discover not only that Earth has recovered, and that the humans there have adopted a form of macrolife, but that aliens who also have adopted macrolife have recently made contact with the Earthlings. John recovers himself after he learns of a vast network of intelligent races that have all discovered macrolife as the safest and best alternative to dirtlife, and lives to help Earth and its macrolife children integrate into the fused consciousness of those other races.

So in the end, there were things I really liked about this book, and things that bothered me quite a bit. On the negative side, Zebrowski's pacing seemed off to me, and no matter how hard I tried I could not make an emotional connection to any of the characters in the first and last novellas. I did feel a great deal of sympathy for John, Sam Bulero's clone in Macrolife: 3000 when his native Lean wife was murdered in a raid for supplies and food by a different tribe, and the end of that second novella completely pulled me back to love this work. Also on the plus side, I really appreciated Zebrowski's understanding of the concept of macrolife, and his commitment to the idea. The book sometimes reads like a tract in support of the cultural ideas it espouses. I thought that Zebrowski made great use of one particular motif, even though he essentially hid it by not discussing it openly. That motif is the idea that out of great pain or social upheaval comes real drive for progress. In this sense Zebrowski is very optimistic, and thinks that humanity can engineer itself out of its woe. The underlying concept here of macrolife is really an amazing and revolutionary idea: Even the idea of acceptance, before any preparations could be undertaken, requires a leap of faith and change in direction of thought. It is for that reason that I believe this book deserves a place among the classics of the genre.

Until recently you would have had to hunt for this one. I was lucky to pick up a signed copy for next to nothing, but Pyr has recently reissued it in its fully illustrated glory.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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