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.