Monday, March 30, 2009

Greg Benford: Across the Sea of Suns, Galactic Center Book II

Nigel Walmsley is back--just as obstreperous and cranky as before, and still a pain in the bureaucratic backside. This is a bit surprising because Nigel is getting up there in years now. The first book in the series, In the Ocean of Night, covered the period between 1999 and 2019. In 1999, Nigel was an experienced astronaut, which suggests that he was at least in his late 20s, if not older. Across the Sea of Suns begins in 2056 and ends in 2064. Even if Nigel had been in his twenties in 1999, he must now be getting close to 90. The only difference is that he's getting a bit creaky and can't handle physical chores now. But, his brain is still as good, and he's one of the few around who can go beyond the narrow limits of the various sciences and get an overall view.

And, that's his problem now. His overall view doesn't coincide with the official view. He sees a connection between the three encounters with aliens in the previous novel and the observations they are now making of a planet circling a star some 8.1 light years from Earth. Rather than remain silent, he keeps pushing and finagling and just generally irritating the wrong people. Back on Earth, that wouldn't have been a problem; he could just go on vacation or take a leave of absence and stay out of sight until all was forgotten or the bureaucrats he had angered had moved on. But, he's not on Earth now, and he can't drop out of sight.

A decade or so ago, transmissions were received from that unnamed star that appeared to be English words, but just English words transmitted at random. Several probes were sent, but little was learned except that the radio signals appeared to be coming from a small planet circling that star. The major powers on Earth, therefore, decided to send people and confiscated a colony ship that was under construction. Based on information gained from the three alien encounters, Earth decided to build its own asteroid ship, the Lancer. It was this ship that was hastily converted into a research vessel and sent to the star.

And aboard were Nigel and Nikki, a woman he had met while working on the alien ship that had crashed on the moon, thousands of years ago. Nikki, in fact, was the one who had found the ship when its still active automatic defense system shot her down as she came within range of its sensors.

The first part of the book details the discovery of the source of the signals, a alien race that is one of the strangest I've ever encountered in over 50 years of reading SF. This race survives on a planet on which it seems impossible for life to have evolved in the first place. And, around the planet orbits a satellite, apparently doing nothing. Nigel argues that life evolved first, and then the planet was attacked and reduced to its present state. And, he also insists that the satellite is there, at least, to observe the planet, a Watcher.

After leaving that system, the Lancer visits several other systems and finds Watchers around other planets that also appear to have been attacked, and also around other planets on which life had yet to appear, if ever.

Meanwhile, Earth is facing its own problems. Aliens have suddenly appeared in the oceans and have completely disrupted shipping and travel. (Reminds me of the John Wyndham novel, Out of the Deeps, aka The Kraken Awakes). Benford provides a second plot which focuses on Warren, a survivor of an attack by the aliens on his ship. He shares some characteristics with Nigel, namely that bad things happen and the best course is to deal with it, and forget about recriminations and finger pointing. And, most ominously, a Watcher has appeared in orbit around Earth.

Human leaders on Earth and in Space are prone to make mistakes, especially when they don't listen to the right advisers. The novel ends with a full scale nuclear war on Earth and the surviving crew of the Lancer on board a Watcher. Nigel, however, has managed to survive, so there's hope yet for the human race.

The novel includes some interesting speculations on life in a restricted area, with a limited population. In addition, Nigel repeats his adventure of the menage-a- trois in the first novel which featured Nigel, Alexandria, and Shirley, with a new adventure featuring Nigel, Nikki, and Carlotta. It may be the human version of the three-body problem (which I hear about frequently in SF but don't really understand, to be honest) in which there are two suns, Nigel and Alexandria or Nigel and Nikki, and a planet, Shirley or Carlotta, that must orbit both of them. Ultimately both Shirley and Carlotta decide that their primary purpose is to protect Alexandria and Nikki from the uncaring and insensitive Nigel, even though this insensitivity has yet to be noticed by either Alexandria or Nikki.

Overall Rating: Great science stuff and good human interest material here. Benford has incorporated enough new ideas for 10 books. I'm looking forward to the third book in the series,
Great Sky River.

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