Friday, July 31, 2009

Greg Benford: Tides of Light-- Galactic Center Book 4

Greg Benford's Tides of Light picks up the story about two years after the conclusion of Book 3 in the series, Great Sky River. In that work we learn of the slow decimation of the human population on the planet Snowglade and the escape of Killeen and those members of the Bishop clan who decide to search for a planet free of mech domination. Aided by the Mantis, possibly a rogue mech or at least one with its own agenda, the humans lift off in the Argo, not in search of the Golden Fleece, but in hopes of finding a planet they can settle without fear of extermination by the mechs.

Now, they are approaching a planet that they hope will be the new Eden. So optimistic are they that they've already named the planet New Bishop, prematurely as they soon learn. The planet is not unoccupied. Already on the planet are mechs, other humans, and the Cybers, an alien race that has been locked in a deadly struggle with the mechs for thousands of years. Whereas the humans have usually fled the mechs for other parts of the galaxy, hoping to elude them and build a civilization in peace, the Cybers have done the opposite. Feeling that the mechs pose an inescapable threat to all organic life, they have deliberately engaged in battle with the mechs whenever the opportunity arises, and in some cases, have gone searching for opportunities.

Briefly, the mechs on the planet, who have been programmed by their central intelligence to engage in competition with one another to simulate the effects of evolution found in organic life, have lost contact with the central intelligence. Over the years, the competition has gotten severe enough that it degenerated into open warfare among competing mech groups. The warfare weakened them sufficiently that humans on the planet were able to take advantage and began their own campaign against the mechs. Just as the humans were about to destroy the mechs, the Cybers arrived on the scene, took advantage of the situation, and quickly destroyed the remaining mechs.

It is at this point that Killeen and the others arrive. Initially mistaken for mechs by the Cybers, the humans barely escaped to the planet surface where they made contact with the humans already there. They discover that the humans are led by a religious fanatic who believes God had directed him to attack and destroy the mechs and now directs him to destroy the Cybers. Killeen is doubtful about this but must go along or he and the rest of the Bishop clan will be destroyed. Warfare among the humans would only weaken them, so the Bishop clan joins in.

To make life even more interesting, the Cybers, led by by their ruling council, the Illuminates, are puzzled by the arrival of Killeen and the Bishop clan. Once having taken the Argo, the Cybers discover information about the humans that results in an open division among the Illuminates, which ultimately breaks out into a civil war. One group feels that the humans
must be destroyed, while a second group believes that the humans, in some way unknown as yet, are necessary for the destruction of the mechs and therefore, the safety of organic life in the galaxy.

Overall, this novel is as good or perhaps even better than the three that precede it. It has action, interesting characters (human and alien), and, what's always necessary for good SF, some scientific extrapolation. In this novel, the major scientific idea is the control of cosmic strings by the Cybers. (For a very brief and readable explanation of string theory, click on the link below to a PBS site.

The Cybers have learned to control the strings and are using it for planetary mining. The string is used to slice into a planet. Once it reaches the core, it becomes a conduit for draining the core of needed minerals. There is much talk today that SF is too often being overtaken by real events. Well, I don't think Benford has anything to worry about here. Assuming the strings even exist, it will be some time in the future before we learn to control them, if that's even possible.

Benford has included a four page appendix to the novel--"Chronology of Human Species (Dreaming Vertebrates) at Galactic Center." There's sufficient material here for another 20 or 30 novels, but so far Benford has resisted the temptation and the series seems to have ended at 6 novels. We still don't know what happened to Earth. For those who are wondering about the fate of Nigel Walmsley, as I am, we still don't know. However, in Books 3 and 4, Benford did include some oblique references to him, so perhaps we are not to forget about him completely.

Now, on to Book 5, Furious Gulf.

Overall, got to give this a 5/5 rating.


  1. Can this novel be read by itself, or must you read the preceding ones in the series to understand it? I'm not very good at reading all the books in a series. ( I usually give up on it after awhile.)

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, _Tides of Light_ can be read by itself. The events are independent of the previous novels, although you will probably encounter references that won't make much sense.

    If you have any questions, ask me. I might even be able to answer some of them.

    The first two in the series are a unit with the same main characters. Book 3, _Great Sky River_, and this one, _Tides of Light_, have the same main characters.

    If you can, I would recommend at some point reading them all in proper sequence to get an idea of the flow of the novels and Benford's inventiveness. The first two novels are set in 1999 and mid 21st century, while the second two take place some 30,000+ years later.

    I haven't started Book 5, _Furious Gulf_, yet, so I don't know where that one fits in with the first four.