Avon, 1979, 284 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-55483-6
One of the unique aspects of Science-Fiction as a genre is that is some instance, it’s possible for a novel to be completely interesting while also being completely rotten. George Zebrowski’s Macrolife is a good example of this.
In many ways, this is an incompetent novel. For most of the books, you can’t discern the characters, and it doesn’t help that most are members of a same anglo-saxon family, so you’re stuck with boring names like Jack, Richard, John, James… Everyone talks the same way and act identically so that it’s a waste of time to figure out the characterization.
The novel is divided in three parts, and I’ll be the first to admit that the third one should have been a two-page epilogue, not a thirty-five page chapter. The pacing is also sadly deficient in the middle section, with our protagonist going down on a primitive planet to… er… do some stuff I couldn’t get interested in. Whoever Macrolife‘s editor was, s/he could have spend some more time on its structure. The prose is okay, though Zebrowski didn’t bother with dialogue.
Which leaves us with the first section and segments of the second part. Fortunately, the novel improves sharply in the fist section. “Sunspace: 2021” resemble Clarke’s work in many ways, with its portrait of a future human society just beginning to step into space. The near-magical “bulerite” element isn’t very convincing, but it does sets up a few interesting situations. More significantly, this section revolves around an event that doesn’t require a lot of effort to be gripping; the end of Earth always requires some attention..
The beginning and ending of the second sections also have some interest, mostly in the description of how humanity is able to evolve beyond Earth and even thrive elsewhere. Though I’m not really familiar with the whole of Zebrowski’s work, this really fits well with the end of his 1998 novel Brute Orbits and elements of The Killing Star, his 1995 collaboration with Charles Pellegrino.
The true value of Macrolife, as is the norm for a hard-SF novel, are the ideas that it showcases. Though it would be useless to pretend that the notion of space colonization is as surprising today as it was in 1979, Zebrowski makes an interesting argument and his “Macrolife” (ie; human settlements as cells of a super-organism) terminology is thought-provoking. Though the novel is twenty years old, it hasn’t perceptibly aged and compares in theme with the latest hard-SF. (It’s fun to see Greg Egan’s Diaspora as an update to Macrolife. Or maybe not.) In any case, this is a novel of considerable ambition. As the blurb says, “From the end on the world to the end of the universe”!
One can’t say that Macrolife has much of a reputation today. (Though its worth noting that the Library Journal selected it as one of the “100 best SF novels”) It’s unfortunate, given that it seems as significant -in SF terms- as its contemporaries like Sheffield’s The Web Between the Worlds and Clarke’s The Fountain of Paradise. In fact, I’m surprised that “Macrolife” as a term hasn’t received much more attention (an Altavista search reveals only 35 mentions) in this age of enlightened environmentalism and impending private colonization of space.
You can easily dismiss Macrolife on literary merits; no argument about that. You can scoff at the weak characters and chances are that they’d agree. You can even ditch most of the last two-third with nary a qualm. But you can’t really argue that the novel isn’t worth a look. Such is the strength of SF, which can get away with escaping most of the criteria of good fiction and still end up with a worthwhile result.