Short Attention Span Review™
In the Ocean of Night
Benford mixes questionable storytelling and minimal futurism in this novel of first contact. I'm bound and determined to work my way through the Galactic Center Series despite this initial setback. I attribute the poor quality of this book to its fix-up nature (and possible drug use in the 70s) and hope the follow on books are much better, because the overall premise is of interest to me.
I remember first trying to read In the Ocean of Night back in 1978-ish when I was just a wee lad still wide eyed from being exposed to the amazing and ground breaking Star Wars movie. The wellspring of science fiction was washing over me at the time, and I had to have more. Note that I said I tried to read In the Ocean of Night, because it never happened. I might have made it through the first part, but I’m certain I dropped it like a bad habit after that. And now that I’ve finally read it as an adult I can see that my former self, and a kid who was just smitten by Star Wars, never had a chance in hell of ever finishing this confusing and jumbled book.
But now I’m more wise, patient, and in tune with the Force . . . like Yoda. Time for another shot. I’ve been intrigued with the premise of Gregory Benford‘s Galactic Center Series and have collected all six books over the years. Now, despite my better judgement, and having now finished the first book, I’m still determined to plow ahead and make an attempt to read them all in the near future. But, if it continues to go south I may abandon the effort in lieu of greener literary pastures, much like that wee lad did decades before. Because even Yoda loses his patience at times.
On paper the series premise sounds promising. Sentient machines trawl the galaxy looking for organic life to exterminate. Their current target: the vermin known as humanity. The makings of an epic, galaxy spanning struggle, right? You’d never know it from reading the first novel! Just like the series premise, In the Ocean of Night starts out promising, but it’s “fix-up” structure quickly begins to crack through the interesting facade. What starts as a mysterious and potentially threatening first contact scenario quickly turns into a political/neo-religious treadmill strewn with the land mines of inconsistent and broken science.
Nigel Walmsley is a NASA astronaut sent out to intercept and destroy an approaching asteroid on a collision course with Earth. While placing the nuclear device on the surface of Icarus, as it’s named, Nigel investigates a deep crevasse as a location to place the bomb, theorizing that it will help break up the mass more efficiently. Instead he finds strips of metal that are cearly artificial and alien made. Further investigation reveals that the asteroid is hollow. Since it’s hollow Nigel defies orders and spends a week exploring the interior knowing that he can wait longer to detonate the nuclear bomb since the mass of the asteroid is much less than originally thought. Nigel inadvertently activates a beacon, which is eventually heard.
Who sent the empty Icarus to Earth? Why did they send it to Earth? Why is it empty? Are they benevolent, extinct, made of green jello? Will they come back? All interesting questions, right? That’s what I thought, then I continued reading and witnessed a story slowly drive off cliff into a boiling caldera of literary magma.
Far beyond the shores of space there comes a mystery as vast as the limitless sea of stars, as beckoning as the unending depths of space.
One man is about to touch that mystery.
For example, the main character, Nigel, has cybernetic implants in his brain that can allow an alien AI to take over his body. Nigel lives in a world where the Moon has been colonized and cylinder cities reside at Lagrange points in space. Yet, paradoxically and bizarrely, Benford places his character in a world that still uses pagers, fax machines, and typewriters. He creates a world where secretaries obediently wheel carafes of coffee into board room, and neatly set out yellow legal pads and #2 pencils for everyone to take notes. Which is what happened in the 1970s, NOT in the 21st century. Eventually Benford just shoves the reader off that cliff and right into the boiling magma of terribleness when he links (you better sit down for this one) bigfoot to aliens who visited Earth in the past. Yes, THAT bigfoot . . . sasquatch. Benford even arms them with alien technology that spews deadly lasers. Bigfoot . . . with “lasers.” Cue Dr. Evil voice.
Benford takes Erich von Däniken‘s Chariots of the Gods idea that aliens built pyramids and influenced early man by going one stupid step further and postulating that super intelligent aliens visited Earth in our past . . . and influenced bigfoot by giving them . . . lasers. For what purpose? I don’t care! Tell me about the alien machines that are so interested in Earth. Benford barely scratches that itch by introducing the “Snark,” which is a sentient ship that is in the galactic neighborhood and responds the the aforementioned beacon. Nigel returns to space and has a brief conversation with the Snark before it figures out that humans, generally on the whole, are selfish, psychotic and want it destroyed. It sends a signal home, so naturally whoever sent the Snark to cruise the galaxy knows about Earth. Everything about In the Ocean of Night that doesn’t directly involve the investigation of Icarus or the Snark is just unnecessary, forgettable, and bad world building. Perhaps it may come in to play later, but I just don’t see it being compelling enough to influence the future books. I could be wrong. Hopefully.
Here’s the main thing that shocked me about In the Ocean of Night. This fix-up novel was nominated for a’77 Nebula and a ’78 Locus award for best novel. I can’t fathom how this book could have been nominated. It’s headache inducing just thinking about it. Thankfully it lost to the deserving Gateway by Frederik Pohl. Had I read this book knowing that it won . . . I might have lost my shit at the end, and would have certainly given it a 1 star rating just for spite. But two star seems justified even thought this novel is a mess, structurally, thematically, and scientifically. I’m hoping it’s a setup for better things to come.
I’m bound and determined to work my way through the Galactic Center Series despite this initial setback. I attribute the poor quality of this book to its fix-up nature (and possible drug use in the 70s) and hope the follow on books are much better, because the overall premise is of interest to me.