Friday, February 20, 2009

Greg Benford: In the Ocean of Night, Galactic Center Book I

I've just begun rereading Greg Benford's "Galactic Center" series, which I consider to be one of the best SF series ever written. Unfortunately, I find I'm pretty much alone in this as I've never heard anyone speak of the series or even of one of the books in it.

The first one in the series is In the Ocean of Night, which begins in 1999, with a classic threat to Earth--a threatened encounter with Icarus, an asteroid whose orbit approached Earth's but never posed a threat until it began emitting a plume of gas and dust, thus turning it into a cometary object and gaining considerable interest among solar system astronomers. Not only was it transformed, but its trajectory was affected and put it on a collision course with Earth. Something was going to have to be done about it, and soon.

The novel actually consists of three separate encounters within some twenty years--the abandoned asteroid ship, an AI probe that passes through the solar system gathering information about the system and life forms, and a crashed spaceship on the moon, but these are not three completely separate incidents, for several reasons.

One reason and the most obvious reason is that the Nigel Walmsley is the significant character in all three encounters. Nigel is a rather unique character; for example, he's British, and he somehow convinced NASA to accept him as an astronaut. Moreover, when Icarus' threat is discovered, he somehow ends up being chosen to approach and plant the h-bomb which is expected to destroy it. However, once there, Nigel discovers that the asteroid/comet isn't what it seems to be. It is a small rocky body that has been turned into a spaceship, one that is at least several hundred thousand years old. It is at this point that Nigel, on the scene, and Houston, back on Earth, began to differ about what to do next.

Nigel is always one to make his own decisions, regardless of what Houston Control decides. So, he's frequently on the black list at NASA, but, rather than quit as many would do, he sticks around and slowly and quietly and unobtrusively works his way back into significant positions. So, when the next encounter occurs, he's there on the spot
causing more problems for those who disagree with him, but only in a non-confrontational way, if possible (while his former enemies in the bureaucracy have long since moved up and out). What his supervisors find most irritating about Nigel is that he tends to be right, more often than not, or at least more often right than they are.

Nigel's personal life is also intriguing. He's married or at least partnered with Alexandria. Then there's Shirley, who makes up the third of the trio; she's decided that her role in the threesome is to protect Alexandria from Nigel--they make up an interesting menage-a-trois. (Correct my French, if necessary.)

Another subplot involves a religious group, the New Sons. They have gained sufficient political power that they can control or direct scientific research on the basis of their religious beliefs-- obviously a fantasy as such things could not happen here.

Almost forgot another subplot: one of Nigel's friends has a close encounter with several hairy? shaggy? furry? bipeds in Northern California.

The other reason the three incidents are closely related is not so obvious at first because the full importance of the three encounters is not fully realized on Earth until the second book, Across the Sea of Suns, which takes place some three or four decades later. At the end of In the Ocean...,
Nigel and some of his friends suspect there's a connection of some sort, but they don't have sufficient information to draw a connection.

This delayed revelation of the threat reminds me of E. E. (Doc) Smith's fabulous Lensmen series in which each novel initially gave the reader a slightly better idea of the threat looming in the background. After the series was initially published, Smith then produced the first novel which provided the necessary background, so subsequent readers all knew from the beginning who the real villains were.

In the Ocean of Night is an independent work, though, and according to the inside cover it is the first in a trilogy, which was probably Benford's thinking at that time. However, we all know what frequently happens to two or three book series. This trilogy turned into a sextet.

It's going to be a great trip.

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