NeuroGenesis review by Norman Spinrad, Asimov's Science Fiction
“ . . . How else can you explain something like Helen Collins’s Neurogenesis being published by an all but unknown small press called Speculative Fiction Review?
Collins’s previous science fiction novel Mutagenesis was published by Tor in 1993 (and reviewed favorably by me here). So why not Neurogenesis a decade and a half later?
Well, I don’t know what Collins has been doing since 1993 and I don’t know whether she ever even submitted Neurogenesis to Tor or any other mainline SF publisher. But having read the novel what I do know is that it is an excellent piece of hard-core science fiction; imaginative, extrapolative, credible on an exobiological, anthropological, cultural, and at least arguably hard science level, and characterologically interesting, too.
What we have here is an interstellar human civilization more or less held together by light-speed-limited starships so that it’s the time-dilation effect that makes it possible for people to make journeys between planetary systems, but at the price of either being never able to go home again or returning to your planet of departure decades or even centuries later with all you knew or loved gone or mutated.
There’s complicated interstellar politics and economic skullduggery, which results in a mission by a spaceship crewed by a specialist in group dynamics, the heir to a ruling family, an experimental Artificial Intelligence, and others to a certain planet for such politico-economic reasons, but for the same reasons, another interest reprograms the destination to send the ship to the ass-end of nowhere.
But while the crew is in suspended animation, the AI evolves, and takes the ship instead to the planet of the Corvi, a hitherto more or less hidden civilization of sentient avians, and . . .
Well, there’s no point in giving away more story, and as usual good reason to stop before one has given away too much, the salient point here being that this is the real deal, a science fiction novel that satisfies the parameters of hard science fiction, biological science fiction, anthropological science fiction, political science fiction, characterological science fiction, cyber science fiction, and tells a well-plotted and coherent story, too.
It touches all the time-honored bases.
It’s a major science fiction novel that easily deserves to have been published as such by a major SF imprint.
So why wasn’t it?
Well, one thing that Neurogenesis isn’t is a quick facile read. Not because it isn’t well written, which it is, but because it is intellectually demanding. Those who don’t enjoy intellectually demanding science fiction may not get through Neurogenesis, or if they do will miss much of the central pleasures of reading it.
The physics of the interstellar travel is as well worked out as such stuff generally gets. The manner in which the avian visual sensorium of the Corvi drastically affects their strange consciousness and therefore their civilization is beautifully and masterfully worked out. Ditto for the evolution of the Artificial Intelligence in the NeuroGenesis of the title. The human interstellar civilization makes economic and political sense. The deep sociology and psychology is equally cogent, well-detailed and logically puissant, and affects the personalities and consciousnesses of the characters as it should.
Once again, and here it is more glaringly obvious that the situation with Joe Abercrombie’s sword and sorcery trilogy, in these latter days, literary virtue would seem to be commercial vice from the point of view of major SF line marketing —and alas, in the case of Neurogenesis, perhaps with unfortunately reasonable justification.
There’s no getting around that to fully understand all that Helen Collins is about in Neurogenesis, readers must be at least minimally scientifically literate in physics, biology, sociology, cybernetics, anthropology, and so forth, and from the evidence in the culture at large this is not exactly a large demographic. Worse still from a commercial publishing viewpoint, to really fully enjoy this novel, readers must be the sort of people who actually take pleasure in wrestling with such intellectually challenging material, and that narrows the potential readership even further.
Am I saying that in the twenty-first century well-rounded and fully realized science fiction like Neurogenesis has become an elite fringe literature?
Yes I am. . . . “
- On Books by Norman Spinrad - The Folk Of The Fringe excerpt
Neurogenesis review by Joan Gordon, New York Review of Science Fiction
Helen Collins is the author of Mutagenesis (1993), an sf novel that was well reviewed but not wildly successful in sales. That volume looked at how sexist assumptions might be extended to genetic engineering, creating women who are bred for very limited purposes, much the way we breed cattle or dogs. There was much more to the novel, including some very lively pursuits and rescues, and it deserved it's good reviews much more than its economic woes. Nevertheless, economics rules the publishing industry- it is an industry-and Collins struggled to find a place for her second sf novel, Neurogenesis, which languished in an uncompleted state for many years before finally finding publication throughout the online and on-demand publisher SpeculativeFictionReview. I know all of this because – full disclosure here – Collins was my colleague at Nassau Community College until her retirement, and she showed me the manuscript of Neurogenesis in several of its stages.
Neurogenesis, like its predecessor, is very much concerned with how we define the human and what we do with those definitions. Here the examination is directed more towards varieties of intelligence – human, artificial, animal, or alien – and how they are treated and acknowledged, than toward gender differences, although gender continues to be a concern. Also as in its predecessor, Collins sets up dramatic tensions to propel the plot along. The novel begins “Attempted Murder on a Windy Planet.”
The main character, Gisonne, puts together a space ship crew for a relatively short and mundane mission. The crew selection is based on the principles of group dynamics, as is the culture of the planet itself. While on their journey the crew is to observe the development of the ship’s computer, an artificial mind meant to evolve through its interaction with the crew. But the mundane mission turns into something much longer and more bizarre when the ship’s navigation forces the crew to a farther destination, a world with intelligent, birdlike aliens. Conflicts arise among the crew and between the crew and the aliens, and mysteries develop about how and why the ship was hijacked, and of course, about that murder.
Collins’s exploration of varieties of intelligence is quite original. First, she considers how the different members of a group together form a larger community personality or group-minded based on the individuals who compose the group and environment in which they are placed. Then she draws a parallel with the development of an individual human mind, which is also the sum of a collection of subsets and its environments as well. Since that individual mind “can only be produced through evolution: and is “based on the reality around it, its environment,” the scientist developing the ship’s computer proposes to make an artificial mind that evolves within the “reality around it” (19), as an analogue of the community formed by the principles of group dynamics – what the characters call a “dyne”- onboard the ship. Eventually, Collins links the evolution of the ship’s computer into an artificial intelligence with not only the dyne but also the birdlike aliens they eventually meet by considering how the way in which the computer “sees” the world around it is similar to the way in which a bird sees. These speculations, and the detail with which Collins develops them, make for a fascinating reading, as they compellingly illustrate Prigogine’s view of complexity as order arising out of chaos.
The novel has its problems, and I wonder if a firm editorial hand could have solved them, something that I suspect SpeculativeFictionReview did not offer. The various threads of the narrative feel too loosely woven, so the story of the dyne, the story of the alien encounter, and the political and economic intrigues never form a coherent fabric. Collins has aimed to weave a very complex tapestry in this novel, but the individual threads of the plot, although left without loose ends, still lack the orderly pattern that here speculations on intelligence achieve.
Although the threads of the plot may be somewhat frayed, the weaving of scientific speculation with setting and character is very tight. Indeed, Collins relates the relationships between characters and the landscapes in which they scheme and argue and bond with great liveliness. While it is sometimes difficult to follow the plot, the gossip is always interesting. And the gossip is directly linked to Collins’s scientific speculation. While the post-singularity folks have concentrated on uploading and downloading of intelligence, “the rapture of the nerds” as Ken MacLeod would have it, others are thinking about something less rapturous and more physically rooted. Like Joan Slonczewski and Mary Rosenblum, for instance, Helen Collins speculates on how embodiment and environment shape and develop intelligence, rather than on how we might leave the physical world behind.
- Joan Gordon, The New York Review of Science Fiction, February 2009, vol. 21, no. 6, pg. 11
NeuroGenesis - Customer Review
In the interest of expanding my reading experience I decided to give science fiction another try. I must admit that I have not explored this genre much and more often ignored it. What a delight to find Helen Collins and NeuroGenesis! Collins has crafted an imaginative tale and created vivid and intriguing characters - and not weighed down with the often needless complexity and confusion of places and people found in much science fiction. Above all, she is a skilled storyteller with a good story to tell and she tells it in a very entertaining way. I certainly want to read more.
- Sally Gessner