Tag Archives: Gregory Benford

Against Infinity

Against InfinityAgainst Infinity by Gregory Benford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up Gregory Benford’s Against Infinity at a used book store a while ago and then put it away to save for portable airport reading on my recent trip to Italy. (Pocket editions like this are truly the best books to travel with.) The book was an effective escape, staving off my growing impatience with multiple delays out of Chicago’s O’Hare because of high winds in New York City.

Against Infinity had more heft to it than I expected, and more beauty as well. Benford had been on my list for a while as a practicing astronomer who wrote science fiction, and I hadn’t been disappointed with his Great Sky River. This one was an interesting fusion between an Arctic survivalist story and the wonder and ecological trappings of Dune. On top of this, it offers a scientifically realistic view of what Ganymede and the Jovian system might look like as a legitimate frontier for settlement. The characters are scouring a living on the surface of the moon, clawing for minerals and slowly tipping the biosphere toward something that can sustain life.

Overlain on this is a hunting tale in the tradition of Jack London and the Yukon, complete with super-intelligent biomechanical dogs and a meaningful coming-of-age narrative. A boy is growing up, forging a bond with an older, wiser hunter, coming to terms with his father, and learning his own limits. The object of the hunt that provides the context for this growth is men venturing out of their settlements into the icy, shifting landscape to cull the mutants of the genetically engineered species that have been introduced to help terraform the surface. The actual object of the hunt though—and ultimately the lynchpin of Benford’s narrative—is the Aleph.

The Aleph is an ancient device or creature that pre-dates man’s arrival on Ganymede and continually burrows through or over the surface of the moon, heedless to its pursuit by men, unaffected by any of their weapons or devices, and sometimes killing them in its passage. The concept, especially in the haunting descriptions provided by Benford, is a compelling hybrid of the raw power and immensity of the sandworms of Arrakis and the alien inscrutability of the monoliths of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey. Benford’s prose becomes positively electric in describing the various ways this enigmatic thing chews through the shattering and slowly thawing terrain of the moon. He can (and does) spend multiple pages on all the glorious details of the behemoth exploding through a hillside, for instance, taking its pursuers unaware.

The first two-thirds of the book hinges on one boy’s growth to manhood and fixation on hunting the immense and elusive Aleph. It reads very much like a science fiction tribute to Jack London: the boy learning the ways of the hunt, training a tracking dog (of sorts), and learning to appreciate the unique bond between man, animal, and the unforgiving wilderness. But whereas a reader of London can take the ecology of Alaska for granted, Benford the astrophysicist gives us a fine-grained detail of the geology and young ecosystem of the moon, a realistic look at what terraforming and its effectives might look like physically as well as psychologically.

But the true hinge of narrative is the Aleph, and the resolution of its pursuit changes the trajectory of the novel about two-thirds of the way into it. After this climax is reached, the narrative jumps in time and expands in scope. The Aleph moves from being a cypher for the great unknown on a boy’s horizon to a much larger unknown of the evolution of humanity. Like the dissected Aleph itself though, this final portion of the novel seems more segmented and less organic than what came before. Benford touches briefly (and a bit randomly) on ideas regarding the evolution of society, including socialism and capitalism essentialized against ecological catastrophe. In this all, the Aleph’s role (and ultimate nature) becomes more vague and less satisfying.

Great Sky River

Great Sky River (Galactic Center, #3)Great Sky River by Gregory Benford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warfare between man and machine has become something of a trope in science fiction, from the future apocalypses of the original Terminator (which scared me to death as a kid) to the more recent, sexy and subtle conflicts of Ex Machina. Often these man-vs-machine dystopias play out against the ruins of our own civilization, with landmarks or blasted-yet-familiar vistas driving home the fact that our own creations have destroyed what we had previously built. Gregory Benford’s classic science fiction novel Great Sky River takes these tropes but adds a layer with an exotic locale and far-future setting that manages to be an even more effective backdrop to the conflict than the near-future alone.

On a world called Snowglade near the center of the galaxy, the remnants of a thriving human civilization eke out a desperate existence in the shadow of a mechanical civilization that has displaced and now disinterestedly hunts them. The machines are not, as in the Terminator and many other incarnations of this story, consciously seeking humans out for extermination. Rather, human cities have been destroyed as one would destroy the infestation of a pest, and the survivors are haphazardly hunted like you would a few remaining cockroaches. Over the course of the novel though something begins to change, and the remaining bands of humans realize a new mech is beginning to take a special interest, herding and harvesting the remaining human population. (You might get glimmers of The Matrix here, though you wouldn’t be quite right.)

What makes this work especially fascinating and haunting is that we learn the history of the human rise and fall on Snowglade along with the main character, Killeen, through memories and legends. The knowledge is as foreign to us as it is to him, who grew up when humans were confined to a few remaining Citadels and is now on the run after the last human strongholds have fallen. It means we start to see the wonder of this far-future, now-fallen civilization through his own eyes as he, for instance, gets his first glimpse of the now-abandoned orbital space stations humans occupied when they first came to the planet centuries ago. And the vistas glimpsed here are immense: humans voyaging across tens of thousands of light years to settle these new worlds near the galactic core, a legacy only now remembered in a few lingering cultural artifacts.

It’s atmospheric elements like this (apart from a gripping plot) that make this novel work. Another example is the lexicon Benford develops for his characters. It’s a language atrophied in some ways, and it fits with a band of desperate warriors who have been struggling to survive against a mech encroachment for generations. It also contrasts nicely with the voices in the main character’s head: digitalized Aspects of humans of past generations who live on in embedded electronics and serve as sources of information regarding Snowglade’s past.

Which brings me to the technology: Killeen and his band belong in a well-crafted first-person video game. They’re more or less cyborgs themselves, unthinkingly using exoskeletons, downloaded personas who ride in their minds, enhanced vision, and implanted radio transmissions. This is all blended seamlessly into the narration of Killeen’s experience, making it feel as natural to us as it does to him, a society that has lived with such modifications for centuries but is running out of the knowledge to keep it functioning. It feels like the gritty technology of weaponry and heads-up displays that would translate well into a first-person shooter or rather that the creators of games like Halo had Benford’s descriptions in mind.

Benford also brings his expertise as a professional astronomer to the fore in describing the celestial backdrop upon which this all plays out: a world orbiting a star that orbits the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center. Like Snowglade’s history, this isn’t spelled out explicitly: it comes in pieces through Killeen’s observations of what for him is a standard sky by day and night. Benford uses this exotic stellar locale for a far-flung deus ex machine that I can only trust will be explained (and probably very scientifically and rigorously) in a later volume.

I was gripped from the first chapter. The gritty, desperate situation in which we find the characters, coupled with the unfamiliarity of a far-future dystopia simply worked. I was hooked the entire time and couldn’t stop reading. (He uses the tried-and-true method Cormac McCarthy uses in The Road, another gripping dystopia, of a man’s overriding concern for his son in this dark future.)

That said, I didn’t like the way Benford’s book ended. It wasn’t the parabolic ending that disappointed me. You could see it coming for quite some time, and it flung our heroes into even wider and broader vistas that Benford certainly explores with success in the later volumes.

No, what disappointed me and seemed to sap much of the urgency of the survivor’s plight was the ghost in the machine that was revealed as their ultimate antagonist. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that after spending the first half of the book constructing a scenario in which the mech civilization was utterly non-human and obliviously hostile, it felt strange and somehow deflating (and also just sort of weird) in the way the primary antagonist was eventually revealed. Part of what made the book compelling was how un-anthropocentric it was: even though it followed the story of these humans, we were seeing them in a world that didn’t care at all about them and had almost unthinkingly wiped them out. But of course, it turns out that humans are actually quite special and central. (Who would have thought?)

In all, Benford is definitely worth keeping on my “to read” list, and I’m eager to dig into the rest of his novels set in this universe and answer the riddles of humanity’s fate at the center of the galaxy.