Sunday, May 3, 2009

Greg Benford: Great Sky River, Galactic Center 3

Great Sky River is the third book in Benford's Galactic Center series. The first two novels, see earlier posts on In The Ocean Of Night and Across The Sea Of Suns, took place in the years between 1999 and 2064. Nigel Walmsley played a leading role in both works, and events on Earth were highly significant, although in the second work, it had to share the focus with events on the exploratory asteroid ship.

This work is set on the planet Snowglade, location unknown except that it appears to be in orbit around a star and a black hole. Just when this takes place is not clear either, except for a brief mention that the original settlers of the planet traveled some 70, 000 years to reach this planet, and that was long ago. Earth is not even mentioned in this work, so all we know is that a nuclear war had taken place and we can only guess at what has happened since then. Were the original settlers refugees from a destroyed Earth? Or, perhaps from colonies that had been settled by humans? Moreover, several large structures are in orbit about the planet--they are called Chandeliers. Were they of human or of mech origin. Tradition says human, but if so, when were they constructed--by the original settlers? by a later group?

The humans who had initially settled this planet were technologically developed far beyond the humans of the first two books, but their descendants had lost most of it, and what little they retained was a mystery.

After having co-existed with the mechs, each ignoring the other for the most part, the humans were almost eliminated by a surprise attack by the mechs. Humans, up to a decade or so, lived in various citadels, and Killeen Bishop, the main character in this work, is now on the run with perhaps 250 other survivors of the devastating sneak attack on their citadel. Their situation is so desperate that they have shut down their sex drive and reproductive cycle because on the run, a pregnant woman is a liability and her survival chances are minimal, if not non-existent. The problem is that in each encounter with various mechs, the humans manage to destroy the mech, but usually at the cost of one or two of their own. Killeen's group, the Bishops, are slowly dwindling. They don't even know if any humans in other citadels had survived the mech attack.
It is clear that the humans are slowly losing the battle with the mech civilization.

They have come close to becoming cyborgs, as they rely on electronically enhanced senses and mechanically enhanced physical abilities. The electronic senses allow them to detect the mechs at a distance, but it also allows the mechs to use electronic measures to attack them.

Generally, most mechs were of low intelligence and were primarily workers with limited skills. They ignored humans unless humans got in their way and treated them at that point as they would any natural obstacle--go around them. More intelligent mechs, called Marauders by the humans, also ignored the humans unless its became aware of them At that point, it would attempt to destroy them.

But, recently, something new has appeared, or something that had been only the subject of rumor and considered myth by most--the Mantis. The Mantis was supposed to be designed to be a hunter, and its prey?--humans. The humans could now occasionally detect a mech of some sort following them, something that hadn't happened before. There were several encounters with it in which the humans thought they had destroyed it, but shortly afterwards, something showed up again, on their trail. Killeen began to wonder about this for it seemed as though it was herding them somewhere, as the humans would move away from it rather than risk an attack.

His suspicions increased as the Bishops encountered another group for the first time since they had been on the run. And, at the moment of the encounter, when both groups in their joy at meeting another group of surviving humans relaxed their vigilance, the mech attacked again. Eventually it was destroyed, or so they thought, but the humans lost more than 38 irreplaceable lives. And, in the distance, they could see worker mechs picking up the various parts of the mantis and carrying it off, perhaps to be reassembled again, and once again on their trail.

But, Benford has not simply created a tale of warfare between the good humans and the bad mechs. Both humans and mechs are far more complex and complicated in their actions and even their loyalties. When mechs wear out or suffer a serious malfunction, they are ordered back to a mech center to be dissembled and its parts stockpiled for other mechs. Some however rebel and turn renegade (Rennies). They exist by preying on other mechs and also by stealing parts and equipment from mech centers. Some even make deals with humans. And, the Mantis, as Killeen learns, a highly intelligent mech, is not just a hunter of humans, but an artist, or at least an artist as mechs understand the term.

Along with the humans and the mechs, Benford introduces a third entity, an entity that can use the magnetic storms that enclose the planet to communicate. It apparently lives partially in and partially outside the event horizon of the black hole. I wonder what Stephen Hawking would make of this. It seems to want to help the humans and informs them of a space ship that was buried in the vicinity. How it knew of this is unknown.

And Nigel Walmsley of the first two volumes? We left him and his fellow human crew members of the asteroid ship in control, maybe, of a mech ship. He doesn't appear in this volume, but during their wanderings, Killeen and his group came across an ancient human structure, one which the Mantis knew something about. It said that the humans had called it the Taj Mahal, and that the leader of the humans who had built the structure had put his initials on the structure: NW. If this is a replica of the Taj Mahal, or something that serves the same purpose as the Taj Mahal, then whose wife is buried here? Nigel outlived Alexandria, his first wife. Has he also outlived Nikka, his second?

Overall Rating: an excellent novel with fast-paced action and a host of ideas sufficient for three or four novels. It would be fascinating just to read a story about the Mantis.

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