“Great Sky River” is an important new work of hard science fiction. The novel is set several thousand years in the future of Benford’s previous novels, “In the Ocean of Night” and “Across the Sea of Suns,” two books of a projected trilogy. “Great Sky River” does not complete that trilogy, but leaps beyond it to a time when the ragtag human remnants of a once thriving civilization are being hounded to extinction by a technologically superior culture of intelligent machines. The machines have, over the past thousand years, wrested Snowglade, a rich world near the center of our galaxy, away from its human colonists. The war between men and machines has destroyed the humans’ proud citadels, leaving them to exist like vermin on the machine-dominated planet, now transformed from a green fertile world rich in organic life to a cold, dead, arid brown planet better suited to the needs of the machines.
The Mantis, a machine intelligence that tirelessly pursues and herds the survivors is faster, smarter, and better equipped than the human fugitives who now wander the devastated planet in search of a safe haven. This novel is hard S-F, but the survivors’ problems cannot be resolved with the usual techno-fix. The machines hold all the technological aces.
One of Benford’s most interesting and innovative previous works, “Against Infinity” (1983), paid homage to William Faulkner’s novelette, “The Bear.” In “Great Sky River” Benford turns543584114nervous systems augmented by Aspects and Faces, which are downloads into the immortality of silicon chips of the knowledge and personalities of their dead ancestors. These desiccated personas of the dead lurk at the borders of consciousness of the living, striving for the sensory stimulation of realtime, waiting eagerly until they are summoned by their carriers to provide canned knowledge and technical skills and to experience a brief re-exposure to life.
This motif creates an atmosphere in “Great Sky River” which is an eerie synthesis of the high-tech neuro-circuitry of cyberpunk mixed with the Hades scene from Book XI of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus, using mead, wine, white meal, and the blood of animal sacrifices, summons up the ghosts of dead heroes to tell him how he may return home to Ithaca. Benford’s protagonists summon up similar ghosts to aid them in coping with alien technology. There are also parallels to the Cyclops, to the faithful dog Argos, to gods, and Lotus Eaters, and the garrulous Nestor. It is a challenge to the interested reader to discover them all.
Benford drives home the point that it is a serious mistake to cast alien intelligence in human terms. “Thing about aliens is, they’re alien ,” is wisdom that the male protagonist has learned from his father. And this is the key to the salvation of the humans. The machine civilization’s essential alienness finally allows a remnant of humanity to triumph and indeed to outwit, perhaps even destroy, the hyper-intelligent Mantis.
“Great Sky River” is an ambitious work that sets new standards for hard science fiction. Benford’s previous contributions to the S-F field include the highly acclaimed “Timescape,” the innovative “Against Infinity,” the splendid, underappreciated “Across the Sea of Suns,” and a very successful collaboration with David Brin to produce “Heart of the Comet.” With the publication of “Great Sky River” this impressive body of work must place Benford firmly among the new generation of masters of the S-F genre, along with Gene Wolfe, Ursula LeGuin, and perhaps a few others. “Great Sky River” is a challenging, pace-setting work of hard science fiction that should not be missed.