George Zebrowski's philosophical science fiction novel Macrolife may be familiar to many SF fans. It certainly is full of ideas that have cropped up in other authors' works. Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis series, and Joe Haldeman's Worlds Trilogy all came to mind while reading it. Zebrowski writes in the tradition of authors such as Olaf Stapledon, Alexei Panshin, and H. G. Wells. Like them, he is one of those writers who can shape the vision of a whole generation and plant the seeds of a hundred new ideas.
Originally published in 1979, and soon to be reprinted by Pyr Books, Macrolife follows the saga of the Bulero family, from the twenty-first century through the eons to the inevitable collapse of the universe. The novel is broken into three separate sections, giving the reader a picture of three eras in the history of Macrolife.
What is Macrolife? To quote one of the protagonists, Richard Bulero: "The city was the first form of Macrolife, an organized way of life that looked to interests beyond agriculture, to science and art; but the finitude of planetary resources doomed the city."
Macrolife becomes a self-sustaining urban environment free from the restraints of planet-bound life, self-replicating and spreading throughout the universe with varying degrees of success.
However, we first meet Richard on the eve of a catastrophe that will forever change the course of Earth's history. He is a young man and has not yet formed the philosophy of Macrolife. The Buleros are a wealthy family responsible for the discovery of a new wonder material known as bulerite. Along with thousands of other Earthlings, they flee the planet for the asteroid colony of Asterome when the disaster occurs. Next comes a brief tour of the solar system with more than a few obstacles and confrontations, until eventually Asterome leaves Earth's sunspace to travel to other stars.
Jump ahead several centuries, and young John Bulero is experiencing growing pains in the confines of Asterome. He wishes to explore the nature of planet-bound existence and joins a tribe of agriculturalists after falling in love with one of its members. Here, his attempts to fit into the culture fail, and he returns to his world more troubled than before. Meanwhile, the rest of the Macroworld readies for a return trip to Earth's solar system.
The last part of the novel details the crisis of Macrolife as the universe collapses into a final black hole. John Bulero is recalled from the great group-mind that now constitutes Macrolife. The group-mind tells him that only an individual can risk "blind decisions of transcendent potential." As the universe ends, John gambles all of Macrolife in an attempt to enable its survival and rebirth in the next cycle of existence.
As in most science fiction that prides itself on the quality of its ideas, the characters in Macrolife come off as somewhat flat, with long stretches of prose that are little more than infodumps. Zebrowski often brushes aside some social conflict, mentioning it in a paragraph, before going on to describe some new technological marvel for pages on end. Personally, I wish he would focus more on that social conflict. Instead, life on the Macroworld reads as a society of doctoral students obsessing over their thesis projects. Zebrowski also paints a fairly harrowing view of life on planets—a picture others might disagree with. Are all civilizations doomed to die if they do not move beyond the surface of their world? According to Zebrowski, even those Macroworlds that land and colonize other planets are inevitably doomed to collapse.
But there is much to discover in this book, things you'll agree and disagree with, more than its few hundred pages would lead one to suspect. Thanks to the reprinting, new readers and authors now have the chance to discover and explore its ideas. For me, Zebrowski, for the sheer quality of his ideas, will be one of those authors I read more of from now on.
Justin Howe was born and raised in the wilds of suburban Massachusetts. For reasons beyond his control, he must live in the vicinity of New York City. He attended the Odyssey Writers Workshop in 2005 and is on a first-name basis with his local librarians.