Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia by George Zebrowski

(2006-07-12)

    Pyr Trade Paperback 2005 (Originally published 1979).

Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia. The title alone indicates that George Zebrowski's novel, first published in 1979, is an ambitious one. Pyr has reprinted this science fiction classic with a new introduction by Ian Watson and an afterword by Zebrowski himself. Pyr includes Rick Sternbach's interior illustrations from the original printing, and John Picacio's vibrant cover illustration depicts a galaxy of Macroworlds spiraling out of a person's mind. With Macrolife, Zebrowski seeks to redeem the notion of utopia, which has suffered in recent memory from the proliferation of dystopian works such as Brave New World and 1984.

The novel opens in the year 2021. Earth has made its first steps into colonizing space, with colonies on the Earth's moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and Asterome, a mobile, hollowed-out asteroid. Jack and Samuel Bulero are on Earth, arguing with each other about the miracle element bulerite, which Jack and Samuel's father Carlos discovered and named, a versatile substance that has revolutionized construction and manufacturing to the point that it is used in virtually everything. Samuel the philosophy professor has concerns about the nature of bulerite, which Jack the businessman shrugs off. Samuel's concerns are prophetic.

Bulerite proves to be catastrophically volatile. Structures and devices containing bulerite throughout the solar system, from space vessels to skyscrapers, explode. Jack is killed when his bulerite yacht explodes. The destruction is most drastic on Earth, which is rendered uninhabitable when miles of bulerite superstructures covering the planet detonate and collapse, creating a chaotic energy field that surrounds the planet. What remains of humanity is orphaned.

The rest of the Buleros escape to Asterome. Jack's son Richard Bulero, who possesses his grandfather's scientific genius and his uncle Samuel's philosophic mindset, creates a working plan for Macrolife, a concept developed by Dandridge Cole in the twentieth century. Richard is assisted by Orton Blackfriar, a politico friend of the Bulero family.

"Macrolife is to man as man is to cell." Cole's analogy, which echoes Thomas Hobbes's political concept of the Leviathan, places the individual in the role of a cell in the larger biological form that is Macrolife. The environment of Macrolife is the Macroworld, of which Asterome is the prototype. A hollowed-out asteroid with concentric layers for habitation, the Macroworld, despite its relatively small outer circumference, contains much more room for its inhabitants than Earth does. Furthermore, the Macroworld can build outward from the original asteroid's surface. Like a cell, a Macroworld can replicate itself. It constructs a new shell, which then separates to become a new Macroworld. Individuals are the nucleus that splits between the two worlds.

Macroworlds can travel long distances, similar to the concept of generational ships, except for one important difference: there is no final destination, no "natural world" to colonize. Instead, Macroworlds roam the universe, stopping here and there to gather resources. Richard Bulero argues that Macroworlds are superior to natural worlds because of their mobility and their capacity to grow and split. These qualities enable Macroworlds to overcome the fundamental shortcoming of all natural worlds: scarcity of resources.

Macroworlds, and the Macrolife within, are also better able to accumulate knowledge, which Zebrowski's mouthpiece Richard Bulero deems to be humanity's raison d'etre. Macrolife facilitates this goal through synergy: minds will be linked to information networks, and ultimately group consciousnesses will develop.

The novel is divided into three sections, each showing a period in the life of Macrolife: "Sunspace: 2021," "Macrolife: 3000," and "The Dream of Time." "2021" shows the birth of Macrolife after the catastrophe of Earth. "3000" is Zebrowski's argument against natural worlds, as the only two options for civilizations on natural worlds are decline (the planet Lea, which is populated by descendants of humans whose interstellar ship failed) or leaving the planet and forming Macroworlds (which occurs with portions of the civilization that returned to Earth after the energy field dissipated). "The Dream of Time" shows the quest for immortality, as Macrolife strives to survive even the death of the universe. In each section, the Bulero family and cloned descendants play prominent roles.

Macrolife is a "story of ideas" devoted to the purpose of explaining the virtues of Macrolife. Like many such stories, characterization and plot are subordinate to the ideas. The passages that set forth the ideas of Macrolife are numerous and lengthy, and are far more interesting than the plot. Zebrowski's characters are flat, often representing one characteristic or idea (e.g., Janet Bulero representing survivor's guilt). Character interaction is used primarily for exposition and debates with predictable outcomes (e.g., when you pit Samuel's ethical philosopher/scientist viewpoint against Jack's myopic businessman viewpoint, who do you think is going to win?). At other times the character interaction is incomprehensible except on the most metaphorical level (e.g., John Bulero and Drisa Haldane's hookup, which includes one of the least romantic come-ons ever written). The heroes and villains come across as Asimovian clichés: heroes are intelligent and villains are incompetent. Furthermore, the heroes are heroes because of their intelligence, and the villains are villains because of their incompetence. The plot, which would serve to elucidate the ideas of Macrolife, at times makes things less rather than more clear.

Competence and incompetence are a central dualism in Macrolife. In addition to the scarcity of resources and the risk of political corruption, a third fundamental problem facing civilization is the incompetent's resentment of the competent. This factor plays more prominently than the other two in the stories of Macrolife. Jack's fatal refusal to test bulerite before marketing it is attributed to his sense of intellectual inferiority in relation to his father and brother (no explanation is made as to why others did not or could not have tested its safety). During his failed coup to prevent Asterome's first step towards Macrolife, General Nakamura cries, "You're not better than I am," and it is understood that he is not only incorrect, but lying as well. Even the inter-tribal conflict occurring on the planet Lea is attributed to turncoat Jerad's feelings of inferiority when Anulka spurns him for the more capable John Bulero.

Because the accumulation of knowledge is the purpose of Macrolife, intelligence and competence are the most important qualities in Macrolifers. The competent are responsible for the incompetent, and the incompetent have a responsibility as well: not to cause problems with the structure of Macrolife. Resentment as seen in the episodes above is a threat to Macrolife, a psychological disorder in which the incompetent must either learn to cooperate or be banished to a natural world.

To further its goals, Macrolife engages in selective reproduction ("a quality-controlled birth" being one of the rights of its citizens), and the story appears to advocate a notion of genetic superiority. The attachment to Earth is described as one connected to the more primitive parts of the brain, whereas the liberating mindframe that embraces Macrolife is one emanating from one's higher, rational brain functions. Those whose minds are conducive to Macrolife will embrace it and survive, while those who succumb to the more primitive brain functions that connect one to Earth will not.

The story suggests that such a mindframe is in-born rather than learned, as characters from later sections of the book are cloned from the characters in the first section in order to perform the same roles as their predecessors. In "3000: Macrolife," Orton Blackfriar's cloned descendants are also political leaders: Frank Blackfriar governs a Macroworld and Tomas "Blackfar" (a descendant of another Blackfriar clone) is the leader of a tribe on the planet Lea. Similarly, Samuel Bulero's clone John Bulero performs the role of philosopher in "3000: Macrolife," at first showing a sense of inferiority due to his being an unmodified clone in a world of genetically enhanced humans, but ultimately coming to embrace the philosophy of Macrolife. This leads to a conundrum: is John Bulero's journey of discovery proof that anyone can learn to become part of Macrolife, or is his genetic heritage proof that only the right type of person can learn to do so? Zebrowski further emphasizes the importance of genetics and genealogy with a detailed family tree of the Bulero and Blackfriar families at the end of the book.  If a utopia requires a certain genetic characteristic in order for one to embrace its philosophy, can it truly be considered utopian?

Furthermore, despite Zebrowski's description of the Macrolife political process, in which everyone has a say in government, the civilizations instead appear to be run by a small number of people. Each Leviathan has a head: Frank Blackfriar is the head of his Macroworld, while Drisa Haldane is the head of the restored Earth civilization. In "The Dream of Time," despite the presence of the Macrolife-created group consciousnesses, the philosopher John Bulero is resurrected to face the metaphysical crisis of the end of the universe on behalf of all of Macrolife.

A notable omission in the story is the absence of culture. The book is sparsely populated, and the reader never sees how the average Macrolifer spends his or her day. The accumulation of knowledge is the driving purpose of Macrolife, and in his afterword Zebrowski imagines Thomas Jefferson's utopian vision: "a room with heat, electric light, a television, and a library, not to mention online access to a library." But do Macrolifers listen to music? go to sporting events? get together with friends? Do Macrolifers experience pleasure? Zebrowski doesn't say that Macrolife lacks these things, but the absence of any mention of them creates the image of a sterile world that satisfies the intellect but does nothing for the soul.

Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia is an intellectually stimulating scientific work that provokes much thought about humanity's future in space. Unfortunately, it is marred by a problematic integration of its ideas into a narrative form that fails to entertain, muddies concepts and leaves too much undeveloped. I recommend this book for its ideas, which are intriguing, but I cannot recommend it for its story.

© Arthur Bangs 2006

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