Sunday, May 9, 2010

Gregory Benford: Sailing Bright Eternity, Galactic Center Book 6

Warning: I will discuss important plot elements and the resolution of the conflict between the Naturals and the Mechs.
Greg Benford's Sailing Bright Eternity is the sixth and final book in his mind-bending "Galactic Center" series, which began during the late 1990s in our solar system out on the rim of the galaxy and ended over 35,000 years later on the edge of a massive black hole, the Eater, at the center of the galaxy. I consider this series to be one of the greatest multi-volume SF works ever written.

Greg Benford is a physicist and astronomer, and he makes superb use of his knowledge as he takes what he knows and expands on it and does not allow it to set limits on his imagination. He has also created one of the most engaging characters in SF--Nigel Walmsley, the Brit who joined NASA in the 1990s and somehow managed to be around some 35,000 years later, thus being present at the beginning of humanity's role in the conflict with the mechs and also in at the resolution.

The story picks up where it ended in the previous book, Furious Gulf, with Toby, who has become separated from his father and the rest of the Bishop family. He has encountered a crusty old man who occupies what appears to be some sort of galactic library and who claims to be from the mythical planet Earth. He is of the Brit family, he jokingly tells Toby. It is Nigel Walmsley, whom we haven't heard of since the second novel, who then, as any old timer who hasn't had anybody to talk to for awhile, proceeds to fill Toby in on his part in the war against the mechs, a period which covers roughly 35, 000 years. Fortunately, for Toby, and for the reader also, Walmsley spent most of the time in deep sleep, so it's really not that long. In addition, Benford has kindly provided a Timeline for the Galactic series at the end of the novel.

As Walmsley finishes his tale, the mechs, once again, appear and attack. Walmsley and Toby are separated and we follow Toby as he flees the mechs and searches the Wedge for his family and friends. The Wedge is an habitat created long ago as a refuge for Naturals fleeing the mechs; it has various "pockets," with varying environments. Naturals are those life forms in the galaxy who evolved in the Darwinian mode whereas the mechs were initially created by a Natural species as a weapon of war (Fred Saberhagen has a similar entity in his "Berserker" series.)

What Toby doesn't realize is that the mechs don't want him dead, just yet. They are looking for his grandfather, Abraham (a great name for the founder of a family/tribe) . The mechs have recently learned, as have some of the humans, that there is a secret weapon that could destroy the mechs if it ever could be constructed. The instructions for the weapon are encoded in human DNA, that part called "junk" DNA that doesn't seem to play any role in human development. To get the information, DNA from three closely related humans is required. In this case, the mechs have decided on getting the instructions from Abraham, Killeen, and Todd. Therefore, the mechs keep prodding Todd on in hopes that he will meet up with his grandfather, whom everybody mistakenly had thought had died long ago.

At one point during his wanderings, Toby fashions a raft, deciding that that it would be easier to float down a large river than to try to make his way by foot along the bank. He eventually comes to a town built on the the river that seems quite strange. The prosperity of the town depends on the river and the mighty boats that move up and down that river carrying passengers and cargo. The inhabitants seem to have created a way of living possibly based on some historical setting.

Toby eventually gets a job on one of these boats, the Natchez, because of his recent experience coming down the river. At one point, Toby begins to have some thoughts about the river that seemed somewhat familiar to me.

"Under Mr. Preston he [Toby] was coming to see that the face of the wedded water and metal was a wondrous book, one in a dead language to him before but now speaking cherished secrets. Every fresh point they rounded told a new tale. Not one page was empty. A passenger might be charmed by a churning dimple on its skin, but to a true riverman that was an italicized shout, announcing a wreak or reef of wrenching space-time Vortex about to break through from the undercrust of timestone.

Passengers went oooh and aahhh at the pretty pictures the silver river painted for them without reading a single word of the dark text it truly was."

What's interesting is to compare this with a passage from Mark Twain's From Old Times on the Mississippi:

"It turned out to be true. The face of the water in time became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was devoid of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you could want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. . . The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on it surface . . . but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals with a strong of shouting exclamation-point at the end of it, for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that every floated. . . In truth the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading matter."

Again the mechs attack, and again Toby is forced to flee. After various adventures he does meet up with Killeen and Abraham. The Mantis, a mech who has long been the major foe of the Bishops, appears and is able to get the all-important DNA samples. The mechs now can decipher the DNA and study the weapon to determine just how dangerous it really is.

Yet, something is still missing, for there are gaps in the coding. Upon the threat of torture, Abraham reveals the code, which had been handed down through numerous generations in the Bishop family. He sings the code, which is actually a song, "a passage from the most hallowed of the musics the Bishops carried in their sensorium store. They had played it on the long marches together, knew its lines by heart. . . The highest of arts, the Mose Art."

The Mantis says, "I see the connection. The unused sites in the Bishop DNA--that is the key. The notes of this piece, arrayed in harmonics, yield the solution. I relay this to the Exalteds now."

Now the long search has ended: the Exalteds (higher-order mechs) had the information and could now begin to develop a defense against this weapon, whatever it was.

However, as smart as the mechs are, they can't come close to the deviousness of the Natural species. The humans are, in realty, bait. They never were expected to build this "weapon" and use it against the mechs. This is all part of the ruse designed to fool the mechs. The coding in the DNA and the aria is not a set of instructions for a super-weapon or even a revelation of some serious weakness in the mechs--it itself is the weapon. It is a virus, much like a computer virus, that attacks and ultimately destroys the memory and logic sections of the mechs. As a further example of the Natural's deviousness, the virus includes a directive that impels any mech infested with the virus to transmit the virus to any mech within reach.

The long war is over.

Now comes the hard part--persuading the few surviving mechs to join with the Naturals, for the universe will come to an end in a few billion years. The mechs must be convinced that they and the Naturals have a common goal here--to find out how to prevent this from happening or at least learn how to survive, until the next universe forms. Cooperation between them would seem to be absolutely necessary at this point.

I have already mentioned Benford's incorporation of some material from Mark Twain into his narrative. This isn't the only example for he skillfully and seamlessly interweaves some of the most common SF themes and plot devices into a coherent narrative structure frequently without the reader realizing what Benford has accomplished.

In the first novel, Benford confronts us with a situation that has already been found in numerous novels and films: a large asteroid is headed for earth and Walmsley is one of the two astronauts selected to destroy it. Yet, even in this situation that has almost become a cliche, Benford adds a twist that makes it a new and highly significant event. In the second novel, Across the Sea of Stars, the mechs' first attack on Earth reminds me of similar tactics used by the aliens in John Wyndham's Out of the Deeps (aka The Kraken Wakes).

Other situations and events in the Galactic Center series bring to mind Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and also his landmark short story, "The Sentinel." And, along with the incoming asteroid, Benford somehow manages to insert Bigfoot (aka Yeti) into the narrative as well as a religious cult that has gained sufficient political power to prohibit certain types of research and prevent the publication of research results that conflict with their religious beliefs (must be fiction, couldn't happen here in the USA).

The overarching plot structure of Benford's Galactic Center series is reminiscent of EE (Doc) Smith's Lensmen novels, which, like Benford's, consists of six works. In both works, the humans, although in the forefront of the fighting, are really weapons wielded by a superior race--Smith's Arisians and Benford's Higher-ups. And, the enemy forces also are controlled by superior beings--Smith's Eddorians and Benford's Exalteds. The identity of the leaders of the opposing forces aren't known to the humans at the beginning of the conflict. It's only as the conflict gains in intensity do hints and clues emerge which tell the humans that there are others involved in the struggle. Again, it's only in the final volume of both works that the ultimate leaders of both sides come out of hiding and reveal themselves. This is especially true of the first publication of Smith's series for he later revised the first volume to give the readers complete knowledge and novels' characters some knowledge of the Arisians and Eddorians and their struggle for control of the universe.

As I said earlier, I consider this to be one of the greatest SF series ever written, and I hope that I've been able to provide some convincing reasons why I believe this. Perhaps some time, someone reading this might be inspired to at least take a look at the first novel in the series.

The first novel in the Galactic Center series is In the Ocean of Night, in which we are introduced to Nigel Walmsley, who spends almost as much time and energy fighting NASA bureaucrats as he does the mechs. It is, therefore, fitting that these should be the last words of Sailing Bright Eternity, the final volume of this magnificent series:

"All was now quite modern and different around there and most of the ancient names on the graves mean nothing to anybody. There are Cards aplenty and Bishops and even a few Dodgers.

Nearby, old markers relate the names in a language now dispersed or dead. Killeen Bishop. Nearby, slightly less worn, Toby Bishop. These graves are unusually large, suggesting to archeologists that these were from the Hunker Down Era.

Always slightly distanced, alone and apart, Nigel Walmsley is buried on a separate knoll, in full view of the ocean of night."


  1. WCG,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    What surprises me is that although I had always considered Benford's Galactic Center works to be one of the best SF series ever written, I hadn't realized just how good it really is.

    My commentaries just barely scratched the surface. I haven't even mentioned the action sequences, which are as good as any I had read, or the various alien life forms found in the novels, many of which are among the most bizarre I've ever encountered in almost six decades of reading SF.

    I'm already planning on a reread in a few years. I've replaced my pb copies, which were falling apart, with hb editions, which should survive a couple of rereadings.

  2. Thought occurs:

    Shape these entries on the novels into a critical essay, and send it to NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF. Hartwell is looking for just this sort of close reading.

    I'd be happy to read it and comment in draft.


  3. Gregory,

    Thanks for the offer of assistance and for the suggestion. But, to be honest, revising it into a critical essay would be beyond me right now.

    However, I will keep your suggestion in mind, in case I change my mind.

  4. A much-belated comment here -- by more than a month! -- but having only just found my way here recently, I have to say your insightful posts on Benford's Galactic Center series are, collectively, the finest examination of those books I've ever read. Honestly, you make me want to pull them off my shelf and reread the whole series right now! And I'll probably end up doing just that within the coming month. Thanks for reminding me how much I liked them, and reminding me that it was time to get reacquainted.

  5. Rab,

    Thank you for the kind words. They are appreciated.

    As I mentioned earlier, the series is scheduled for a reread in a year or so.

    I'd enjoy reading your comments when you start reading them.

  6. I talked to Hartwell about your analysis of the series. He's very interested and would like to see anything you have, even just the whole string comments book by book. He can help you shape it; best editor I ever had.

  7. Gregory,

    How do I get in touch with you?

    Are you the same Gregory who commented last year with the label of Anonymous and then signed in as Gregory?

  8. Fred:

    Yep, same Gregory. Can email me at

    Hartwell's still interested, too.

    Ever go to a con? & where do you live?

  9. Fred,
    I started GC by reading the first book and then somehow skipping the second (until much later). Great Sky River was something of a revelation to me, it was stylistic tour de force, I thought Benford has upped his game from Timescape etc. I found the saga of the Bishops transporting and compelling, describing a transhuman society with the sufficient (but not excessive) amount of detail to make it both comprehensible and vertiginously exotic. (And I think I've become much more selective in SF reading over the years, Ian Banks is fav but I am still awed by Benford's achievement). But I am glad to have stumbled on to this review because it confirms my feelings about GC. Thanks.

  10. Wallfly,

    I'm glad you enjoyed my comments on the series. I think it is one of the great achievements in SF. Benford has much to be proud of here.

    I am planning on doing a third reading some time in the near future. There's so much I suspect that I missed the first two times around.