Friday, January 22, 2010

Greg Benford: Furious Gulf--Galactic Center Book 5

Furious Gulf is the fifth book in Greg Benford's Galactic Center series. In this novel, Killeen Bishop and Bishop family reach the center of our galaxy, at which is the black hole they call the Eater. (Current theory supports the existence of a black hole at the center of our galaxy and at the center of many other galaxies also.) In the first two volumes, In The Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Stars, we followed the exploits of Nigel Walmsley, a Brit who somehow wrangled his way to becoming an astronaut for NASA. Those two novels covered the period from the 1990s to around 2060 or so and depicted humanity's first tenuous contacts with the hostile mech culture.

Book three in the series, Great Sky River, takes us some 30,000 years into the future and far from Earth. During that period humans have spread throughout the galaxy but had seemingly reached their peak and dwindled down into isolated remnants scattered throughout the galaxy. The planet Snowglade contained some of these remnants, a few bands of tech-nomads desperately trying to survive the mechs. Discovering a ancient human built spacecraft, which they name the Argo, and with the aid of a renegade mech (perhaps) known as the Mantis, the humans escape the planet.

In Tides of Light, Killeen Bishop, who has become the leader of the Bishop family and remnants of other families, leads his people to another planet which they had hoped to settle, free once again from the mechs. Instead, they find more bands of humans who are engaged in a struggle for survival, first against the mechs and then against the mulitpedia, who are an organic intelligent species far in advance of the humans and who are also apparently on the way to becoming an organic/mech hybrid. After a struggle, Killeen once again leads his people off-planet and heads for the Galactic Center, this time accompanied by Quath, one of the multipedia who comes along as a representative of and a contact with the multipedia, .

Furious Gulf opens with the Argo nearing the Eater, the massive black hole at the Galactic center. Killeen faces a mutiny aboard ship for his crew has been on reduced rations for some time, and he has ignored their requests to stop and replenish supplies. Killeen, at this point, resembles Melville's Captain Ahab much more than Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. Killeen is obsessed with reaching the Center, for legends, myths, and his instincts tell him that the secret of survival in the war with the mechs lies at the Center, and he seems willing to sacrifice his ship and crew in pursuit of that secret.

Warning: I am going to discuss significant plot elements and the ending of the novel.

With the aid of the mysterious electromagnetic entity who has appeared previously, the Argo is able to avoid the mechs and find a temporary haven at a space station? on the edge of the black hole. At this point, the disagreement between Killeen and his son Toby emerges, and this appears to be the result of one of the strangest Oedipal conflicts I have ever read.

The humans who run the station are not doing this out of any warm feelings for humanity but out of a profit motive. The Bishops and the Argo can stay, but there are various fees, one of which is access to the so far untranslatable tiles found on the ship.

Benford has allowed us to listen in while the mechminds debate their course of action with regards to the humans, and we have discovered that they also are intrigued by these same tiles. They just might be a threat to the mech civilization. The mechs are also concerned because they know that mysterious intelligences superior to them exist. Are these intelligences more highly evolved mechminds or could they impossibly be organic?

In the first two novels, the POV character was Nigel Walmsley, whose struggles with his superiors in NASA was a significant part of the work. The third and fourth novels featured Killeen Bishop and his struggles, not surprisingly, with various authority figures and to some extent with his crew, which could replace him if they became too disenchanted with him. In this novel, the POV now shifts a third time, to Killeen's son Toby. We experience events from Toby's perspective, including his view of his father, who is struggling to keep the crew under control.

Toby, about two-thirds of the way into the novel, finally breaks with his father and escapes into the strangest environment yet presented. To a considerable extent the landscape consists partially of more or less "solid" time. No, I'm not going to attempt to explain this.

While Toby is on the run, the mechs make a concerted attack on the human stronghold. They, like Killeen, believe there is a threat to mech survival, and it seems to have something to do with getting three generations of a family together. Somehow, Abraham (interesting name for a patriarch), Killeen's father, has managed to escape the final attack on the Bishop stronghold on Snowglade and get to the Galactic Center. The mechs want capture them, if possible, and discover just what the nature of the threat might be, or at least eliminate them to remove the threat.

Toby eventually manages to reach a sanctuary and is greeted by Nigel Walmsley, who has managed to survive for 30,000 years through judicious use of cold sleep and the time-dilation effects of existence on the edge of a black hole (these effects are a generally accepted and respectable part of the theory regarding black holes). Time is the strangest thing, especially around black holes. We are now ready for the climactic struggle between the mechs and humanity.

Thus ends Furious Gulf.

The star of the show is the Eater, the black hole at the center of our galaxy. I've read other accounts and have even seen at least one film of the environment of a black hole, but Benford is the first to really focus on and bring out its strangeness, and that includes several life forms. That he is able to do this is, no doubt, the result of his education and training as an astrophysicist. In the "Afterward" to Furious Gulf, Benford writes--

"It has been an unusual experience to conjure up imaginary events about a place that I was also doing hard calculations about. Freed of the bonds of The Astrophysical Journal, I have felt at liberty to speculate on what processes might have transpired, over the galaxy's ten billion years of furious cooking, to create forms of life and intelligence beyond our ken."

Overall Rating: again a superb effort on Benford's part.

Now, on to Book 6, the final book in the series, Sailing Bright Eternity.

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