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Number 909, February 5, 2017

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Macro Life by George Zebrowski: a book review
by Jeff Fullerton

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Macro Life cover

Science fiction has long been one of my favorite past times for escaping the dreary rock realities of contemporary life—especially in the winter time when the outdoors offers little reprieve and I want to escape from that too. I've said many times that a space colony with a climate like Hawaii could be the ultimate antidote to Norseman's Hell.

Next best thing is of course a greenhouse. But mine is more like something you might have in an early Mars settlement and you have to suit up and go out to it. And not that roomy either though it is better than nothing. Much nicer would be an O'Neil hab or one of Dandridge Cole's hollow asteroids. The latter was probably the inspiration for George Zebrowski's concept for a mobile space habitat that became the basis of his novel Macro Life which came out on the late 1970s.

I had initially heard about it in the editorials of Far Frontiers and space colony literature during the early 1980s but never got around to reading it until I came across a copy at an old book sale on Andrews Air Force Base in 1989—my first year on station. It was a good find and a very moving book that I have kept with me and read many times through the years. I just recently read it again and last winter I had finally gotten hold of the sequel: The Cave of Stars which I was able to order online.

Both are very rich and as said above—moving novels.

The first one starts out in the near future of the early 21st Century with a timeline that is already in the process of being outrun by current events but don't let that stop you from reading it. I have found many out of date classics from the Golden Age of SF that are so well done that they still good—like Edmund Hamilton's "City at World's End" or some of the works of Murray Leinster and even H. Beam Piper or Robert A. Heinlein. And no one in their right mind would toss out Arthur C. Clarke's 2001! You can always kick the storyline a little farther along just a the dream of "Lunar Mine by 89" will hopefully happen by "29" or "39" at the latest! Then on the other hand, asteroid mines may very well make lunar mining unnecessary—though it won't surprise me if they end up doing both.

As for the saga of Macro Life: it begins in a near future time slightly more advanced than our own in which the Bulero family is enjoying the fruits of their invention known a Bulerite: a strange new metal alloy with unique properties that make it super strong and allow the construction of huge megastructures to accommodate a growing population and to colonize space. However in the not so long run—Bulerite has a fatal flaw that contains the seeds of destruction for the very civilization that it had just saved.

Bulerite is unstable. It gains increasing strength with age by absorbing kinetic energy from every impact or stress inflicted on it. But eventually the energy builds up to critical levels and the metal fails catastrophically by exploding and it begins with a few of the older structures leading to a frightening conclusion that the end of the world is nigh because the use of this substance is so ubiquitous that it would be logistically impossible to remove all of it from the very infrastructures of every city on Earth and lift safely away into space in time.

The only feasible option is escape. The Buleros and their friends the Blackfriars get off Earth and find refuge on the space habitat Asterome which is an older Dandridge Cole type that luckily does not contain any Bulerite in its structure and they are able to remove the stuff that was brought in later in the form of machines and such. Other habitats and ships containing large amounts or built entirely from it are not so lucky and must be abandoned.

Soon massive Bulerite structures began exploding all over the place and the disaster is compounded by the outbreak of nuclear war that results as nations blame each other—or possibly just as a knee jerk reaction to lash out in distress at their rivals. The Buleros flee aboard Asterome to a colony on Jupiter's moon Ganymede where they are not too well received since they were responsible for the calamity that destroyed civilization on Earth and they have to deal with a remnant of U.N. authority that wants to commandeer Asterome for its own purposes.

In the end Asterome departs the solar system using a faster than light drive developed; ironically from the very same Bulerite metal that not only ended life on Earth—but also enveloped the entire Earth / Luna system in some sort of cosmic anomaly that has caused the home planet and its moon to recede from the physical universe. This leads to the discovery that under controlled conditions: the metal can be used to create a field around a space craft that will allow it to transcend the speed of light and makes rapid interstellar flight possible. And so Asterome and it's resident population opts to go.

Boldly into the great unknown beyond the solar system and soon others follow—giving rise to a split in the human race between those who become interstellar wanderers living in mobile communities and stay at home types who live in stationary habitats in their own systems or for nostalgic reasons attempt to rebuild plant based civilizations in the fashion of their ancestors from Earth.

Then in the second part of the novel: Macro Life 3000; the plot gets exceptionally rich.

A thousand years have passed since the departure from the solar system and the society of humans on Asterome has evolved—achieving extended life , links with artificial intelligence and high standards of living and understanding of the universe. The habitat itself has also evolved; expanding to accommodate a growing population by building layer upon layer of concentric shells around the exterior of the original asteroid. It also has developed the means of self-replication by way of making a copy of itself when the population reaches a critical mass and needs to split as a means of relieving social pressures and avoiding internal political conflict by allowing opposing factions to go their separate ways.

The fashion in which they do so is very reminiscent of the way chimpanzee bands or Paleolithic tribal villages break apart when they get too big. In the Macro Life concept of the author it is compared to a form of cellular division on the macro scale hence the name of the social container given.

In this part of the story the focus is on the character John Bulero who is actually the clone of another by the same name who was created to centuries later to live again as a unique individual who is more or less an identical twin separated in time. He is coming of age when Asterome is approaching a binary star system containing the planet Lea which is a primitive dirt world—as those who belong to the mobile space faring societies call them. The planet has a small human population subsisting at Stone Age levels after a failed attempt to build a civilization there. The purpose of Asterome's visit is mainly to obtain resources from the planet and elsewhere in the system for construction of a new Macro Life vehicle and the people scraping for existence on that world are not of much interest to anyone other than John Bulero who is somewhat of a rebel and has developed a discontent with his own way of life and fascination of life on dirt worlds.

He also develops an interest in Anulka: a beautiful young woman from a tribe on Lea that he encounters in an abandoned city along with a party of men that includes a scholarly elder by the name of Blackfarr—a corruption of the Blackfriar family name and no doubt a long lost relative of that clan.

The purpose of that group studying the ruins was to relearn ancient arts that could be useful in improving the general wellbeing of the tribe and enhancing its survival. John Bulero who becomes the lover of Anulka wants to use the technological resources of his own society to accelerate the process but runs into resistance in the form of skepticism from his mentors on Asterome and general apathy of the ship's population that could care less.

It becomes a fascinating look not only into the culture of Macro Life but also a critique of interventionist policies of highly developed cultures toward less developed ones. John is in many ways a stereotypical bleeding heart liberal who finds himself pleading for action to help the poor souls struggling to survive in the deplorable primitive conditions down on the planet. He is given some lukewarm possibilities of resources to start a modest project that he could remain behind to run after Asterome and the new ship being built have departed. Or the possibilities of rescuing the population of the village and dispersing it between the two vessels. But that involves a whole other potentially unpleasant can of worms trying to assimilate people from a Neolithic culture into a high tech spacefaring society that even people we know in our own modern society might have serious problems dealing with.

Some of the threads in the midpoint of the novel could teach valuable lessons to the elites in charge of contemporary American foreign policy. At times we have been a force for good in the world. But too often many of our best altruistic interventions have backfired with disastrous results. And that becomes the tragic case for the ordeal of John Bulero on the planet Lea.

First is the growing discontent of Anulka who is something like a queen to her people—who was hoping to have John as her consort and produce a line of royalty. Then she becomes angry upon learning that John is using contraceptives to prevent procreation. Then there is the matter of Jerad—the man originally betrothed to Anulka who fell out of favor with her and the tribe in general shortly after John's arrival. He ends up joining an enemy tribe and brings back a party of raiders to kill a majority of the village including Anulka and Blackfarr. A tragic disaster but a growth experience for both John and the reader who learn that there is only so much anyone can do and that there are somethings that are just best left alone. Especially people. To a predominantly libertarian readership that is self explanatory. To others—you might learn something useful if you read this novel.

As for the social and political themes—the idea of Macro Life as a super organism or "social container" as one of the characters puts it has strong collectivist overtones which are hardly uncommon in science fiction. I was put off in a way by the narrative in the latter part of the story where Macro Life evolves to a universal phenomenon and individual beings for the most part cease to exist. But the feeling of revulsion I tend to have toward hive minds was not as bad as it was in regarding to the unpleasant outcome of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. Yet even unpleasant outcomes that evoke strong feeling are indicative of good writing. And sometimes it is tragedy that makes for the best of stories.

As Asterome and the newly constructed vessel depart the system of Lea and set course for a return to Earth—it is a time for healing and deeper learning for John Bulero who finds himself and his place in the Macro Life society. The most interesting thread being the very libertarian emphasis on the self development and achievement of success within the social container of Macro Life—despite its collectivist overtones.

Upon return to the home solar system it is learned the anomaly that swallowed the Earth and its moon has since receded and the planet is green with life once more. Plus there are thriving colonies on Mars, Ganymede and in the Asteroid Belt and a stay at home variety of Macro Life in the form of O'Neil type habitats near Earth. Asterome and its companion vessel are at first unwelcome because of concerns on the part of the resident human population that their untimely arrival might spoil a pending contact with an alien civilization that is also sending a ship to the solar system.

A compromise is worked out and the returning Macro Life ships are allowed to stay. John Bulero visits Earth in similar fashion to Lea and learns that life there is simple and primitive in contrast to that of the orbiting sun cup worlds and other off planet communities. It is a common theme in the story where people nostalgic for a return to planet based life found societies that sooner or later run up against social and ecological limits, self destruct and slide backward. A growing rift is evident between what is referred to as the urban culture of Macro Life and the rural culture of dirt worlds which often look with suspicion upon each other. From historic data gleaned from the log of the original colony ship left in orbit around Lea: it was learned the ship was cobbled together to escape the aftermath of a disastrous encounter between a Macro World and a society on a planet in the Tau Ceti system that had a tech level close to our own current world and was resentful of the intrusion and the prospect of their best and brightest young people being lured away by the more exciting mobile culture of the spacefarers. That too is an important thread talked about in regard to the need for repressive measures to shackle the minds of discontent youth on dirt worlds because discontent is prone to move people in the opposite direction too. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

The contact between the alien emissaries that arrive in a Macro World craft the size of Mars also brings with it two other human built Macro Worlds the likes of Asterome that were the first contact unbeknownst to the inhabitants of the Sol system. The ensuing conversation—initially between artificial intelligences—is the beginning of the initiation of humanity into a greater circle of other Macro Life societies that has the ring of the proverbial Galactic Club talked about in literature pertaining to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) . And so begins the establishment of a multicultural society of human and nonhuman sapients and their cybernetic constructs like the Humanity II A/I systems frequently mentioned throughout the story. Over time the Macro Life society works out the problem of dealing with the societies that develop from failed colonizations or naturally evolved sapients on dirt worlds letting them to progress free to succeed or fail on their own and welcoming them into the circle of higher civilization when they develop the technological and economic capability for space travel.

Again and again the important theme is repeated. The idea that being allowed to succeed or fail on ones own may be better than being rescued and uplifted by someone else. Be it John Bulero or the people on Lea and the Tau Ceti planet and countless other examples implied by the sheer abundance of potentially habitable worlds in the universe. It is implied that intelligent life is inevitably stunted and rendered unhappy when it is uplifted from the outside and robbed of a personal sense of achievement and sense of being in charge of its own destiny.

This book ought to be required reading for those who work for the U.S. State Department and the myriad international relief agencies. Not to mention those who administer domestic welfare programs.

The final part of the book captioned: The Dream of Time takes the reader into the distant future where hyper personal aggregate intelligences predominate Macro Life which continues to deal with the mundane problems associated with contact and peaceful assimilation of low tech cultures in an aging universe and ultimately confrontation with the increase of entropy and the end of time itself. Zebrowski sets his story in a closed universe with enough mass to allow for contraction and reset with another Big Bang to start a new cosmic cycle. And into this setting John Bulero and other discrete individual beings are temporarily reconstituted to serve as eyewitness and to use primitive insights and instincts that will allow at least some portion of Macro Life to survive the transition through the cusp. It gets very esoteric and even quasi religious at this point. The ending is very moving when the author begins the final chapter with a phrase about Macro Life waiting in the morning light of creation to join with the aggregate of other higher macro forms that survived from countless other cosmic cycles and will continue to journey down through time to repeat the process to infinity.

I don't know. I've never been a big fan of that kind of transcendence or singularities—though I did enjoy Vernor Vinge's "Marooned in Realtime". Perhaps because the manner in which Macro Life operates seems more respectful to individuality and free will as opposed to Clarke's Overlords in Childhood's End who sought to keep mankind contained on the grounds that we might spread havoc to the stars. I remember a group in that story called the Freedom League that sounded something like the Tea Party movement; which kidnapped and held for a while; the U.N. ambassador that acted as the Overlord's spokesperson. Then later in the story they retreated into deliberate communities—usually located on islands or in remote wilderness areas where they often talked about the importance of freedom and independence but were for the most part marginalized and powerless. The equivalent of being disarmed by virtue of hopelessly inadequate means to resist a superior force their only means of resistance might be to go after soft targets in the form of fellow humans who were friendly with or favored by the Overlords—much like terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic militants in our world. Or they can just loose themselves in hobbies and other pursuits. I am familiar with that approach myself!

The overall lesson from SF on the issue of low tech cultures being dominated and marginalized by more advanced societies is that doing such—even with good intentions is prone to lead to disaster. The idea of one's destiny being decided by others is very unappealing. Even distressing. For me: when Karellen; the leader of the Overlords declared the stars are not for Man; I was already itching to acquire a ship with FTL drive. And having thoughts as dark as what I might do with some kind of Nova Bomb or the likes of a Starhammer Weapon from Christopher Rowley's Vang series! And I had yet to learn of the more low tech approach of a cee frag bombardment with a cloud of sand that could be released on the Overlord's home planet from a ship headed at it at a significant fraction of light speed that was employed by the Marines against the Hunters of the Dawn in an Ian Douglas novel.

I know it might violate the ZAP, but so does restricting a less technologically advanced culture to its home planet and planning and dictating its destiny and the behavior of its individual inhabitants. Doing that invites some form of retribution if the society you are trying to contain or manipulate ever manages to find a way to break loose from confinement and lays hands on powerful enough weaponry.

As for the issue of transcendent societies; Macro Life presented what I thought was the best rationale for not going around building empires or playing the good shepherd in the role of systematically uplifting and intervening in the affairs of primitive planets. On the grounds that it would occupy time and resources better spent on improving their own society—which was more important to the denizens of of the mobile habitats than the issues of harming or handing over dangerous technologies to dirt worlders.

Understandable when you consider how much trouble it is to run one's own life let alone carry the weight of an entire galaxy or cosmos on your shoulders!

Macro Life is definitely a five star novel. And so is the sequel : Cave of Stars which in some ways is a prequel detailing events at the Tau Ceti planet that explain the origin of the people who founded the fallen society on Lea. If you like Macro Life you will enjoy that one too!

Cave of Stars cover

This is the sequel or prequel depending on how you slice it. In some ways it may be even better than the original. It is the story of another mobile Macro Life community that visits a planet in the Tau Ceti system. Written later on but before it was revealed that this particular star possesses an inner system of several super Earth type planets—two of which were thought to fall near the inner and outer boundaries of the estimated habitable zone implying marginal habitability at best. However subsequent estimates of what constitute a habitable zone shift the boundaries outward making the outer of the two planets more promising.

Could this be the place?

The Macroworld craft arrives a few centuries post calamity that drove humanity from Earth and finds a society based on a religious theocracy established by a remnant of the Catholic Church which organized the colonization venture to establish humanity on a new world where the quest for redemption could continue after the premature demise of Earth. Complete with a new pope and a theocratic bureaucracy that tries to freeze or at least slow technological progress at a 20th Century level.

There is a complicated intrigue between the two societies involving a group of misfits who were exiled to die on a penal colony on a remote atoll ravaged by frequent hurricanes that seeks asylum on the Macro World while discontent citizens from the later are looking to settle on the remaining wild continent that still has the original alien ecosystem. And you have the aging terminally ill pope who is bent because the visiting spacefarers are not interesting in giving biological immortality to a despot.

And so the pope plots a devastating act of treachery involving weapons of mass destruction secreted aboard the original colony ship that the spacefarers were foolish enough to allow the historians among them to bring aboard the the Macro Life vessel. That kind of fits the Stupid Aliens formula of SF detailed in an Issac Arthur video on YouTube!

But it is a good story about the effects of unintended consequences involving the crippled Macro World itself which in turn becomes deadly missile of destruction in the form of a mass extinction impact on the planet forcing the departure of a mixed crew of surviving space farers and people recruited from the doomed world on a hastily constructed starship that is far less capable than the original. The exceptionally long voyage that ensues to reach the system of Lea where a supply cache of technological resources was left—and subsequent hardships and social tensions on the way explain how the society that results gets off to a bad start and ultimately collapses into planet bound barbarism.

That one was rather depressing but does a good job exploring the process of societal breakdown. It and the other novel also raise the issue of individual choice and the right of individuals to leave one society and join another one where the feel they will be treated better or afforded opportunity to better themselves. That was the lot of dirtworlders aspiring to join Macro Life societies or the inhabitants of dirt worlds wishing to be left alone. It is common for super organisms to collectively enforce conformity and prevent members from leaving—be it be an authoritarian state or major religion down to the level of tribe or family. Principled Libertarians argue otherwise. To us the value of the individual outweighs the collective good and even in consideration of the latter value it is still better to let malcontents leave than force them to stay.

Another thing I did not touch on initially was the similarity of the unofficial non interference ethics of the Macro Life societies to the Prime Directive of Star Trek. I know how El Neil feels about that one! As for the Macro Life universe I think Zebrowski has minted a much better system for dealing with less advanced cultures that is very consistent with both libertarian and most basic common sense ethics. There is no United Federation of Planets or Star Fleet Command to manage or enforce prohibition of members interacting with inhabitants of backwater planets. If anyone wants to do so they are on their own and will have to deal with the consequences of their actions. It was noteworthy that John Bulero was not too keen on being left on his own with the inhabitants of a Stone Age planet—most likely to die of old age when irreplaceable hardware needed for his life extension wore out or some of the locals who didn't like him decided to gang up and kill him.

In the end he gave up and went back to his own culture. Without major backing—interference in the affairs of others is usually self-limiting.

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