The Galactic Center Series, Gregory Benford

Various, 1978-1995, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

In the Ocean of Night: Quantum, 1978, 295 pages
Across the Sea of Suns: Bantam, 1984, 352 pages
Great Sky River
: Bantam, 1987, 340 pages
Tides of Light
: Bantam, 1989, 362 pages
Furious Gulf
: Bantam, 1994, 341 pages
Sailing Bright Eternity
: Bantam, 1995, 445 pages

Faced with the prospect of a six-book SF series, any sane reader can reasonably ask whether the results will be worth the required time and money. After all, it’s not as if one frequently hear complaints about books that are too short or stories that are too exciting.

More serious doubts are raised while considering that the Galactic Center series was written between 1978 and 1995, a period during which SF changed considerably and readers’ expectation adjusted accordingly. Even worse, Gregory Benford never enjoyed a reputation as a very accessible author, with his graduate-level literary style presenting postgraduate physics. Would the series suffer from disillusions of literary grandeur, outdated SF assumptions, difficult science or terminal boredom? To put it succinctly, it the Galactic Center series worth it?

This reviewer, donning his “Consumer Report” costume, doesn’t think so, but doesn’t expect readers to be satisfied with such an curt answer. Let’s examine the series and find out what makes it tick incorrectly.

In the Ocean of Night is a fix-up novel of stories published during the seventies. It opens with one of the most commonplace scenarios in turn-of-century SF; astronauts deflecting an asteroid headed for Earth. Things get less conventional after the asteroid ultimately reveals to be of artificial origin. In the Ocean of Night quickly becomes a prime example of what everyone will recognize as “seventies SF”, filled with ecological hysteria, marriage-à-trois, undigested literary devices and half-hearted attempts to combine mysticism with hard science. As a basic read, it has lost considerable interest and almost all of its freshness. There are good bits here and there, mostly in the protagonist’s communication with the unknown, but otherwise it’s not a novel that will set your mind of fire. Oh, and there’s a sasquatch in there. Not that he ever reappears later in the series.

Across the Sea of Sun is a direct sequel to In the Ocean of Night, starring the same protagonist -Nigel Wamsley- in events happening shortly after the first novel. Even though some threads are comfortably forgotten (G’Bye, possessed Alexandria), there isn’t much of a transition between the first and second volumes. Across the Sea of Sun is simultaneously more entertaining and more annoying than its predecessor, an unfortunate mixture of unwieldy literary devices used too freely, and a few late-minute twists that really kick the story in high gear. It’s supposed to be a rather good hard-SFish tale of space exploration, but there is a lot of fat in these 352 pages and readers will have to be patient in order to get to the entertaining epilogue. The shape of the series’ theme is gradually revealed. Again, Benford shows signs of staying stuck in the seventies when his protagonist gets enmeshed in yet another marriage-à-trois, though this one ends up featuring a transsexual instead of a possessed automaton. Hey, whatever gets you off, Nigel.

The third volume, Great Sky River, is a major, major let down. It happens sometime, someplace with people who speak a barely understandable dialect of English. These people are nomads, forced to flee and fight against marauding robots in a world dominated by mechs. We’ve all seen MAD MAX (or TERMINATOR 2, or…) and the initial setup is familiar, if intensely boring. The storyline follows the usual post-apocalyptic template, with the expected inconsistent enemies and hoards of hidden techno-goodies. This should have been a zippy tome, but it gets bogged down in useless trivia once again. Furthermore, only attentive (or imaginative) readers will be able to connect any part of this novel with the previous two volumes of the series.

At least Tides of Light takes Great Sky River‘s protagonist, Killeen, off his hellhole of a planet, only to fall on yet another hellhole of a planet also dominated by mechs. The showcase scene of the book is a rather intriguing descent through a planet’s core, smothered with fascinating but lengthy details and -we guess- backed up by pages of intricate calculations. Alas, the rest of the novel drags on and on without the benefit of an interesting gimmick. There’s an interesting twist at the end, unfortunately diminished by its predictability. There are passages from an alien point of view; these can safely be skimmed. The novel ends as it began; aboard a spaceship heading somewhere, giving the impression that this book really wasn’t worth much.

With Furious Gulf, the series *finally* moves in some kind of gear, though some will argue that it’s in reverse. Killeen and crew finally arrive somewhere important, but the readers shouldn’t get overconfident, because what follows is more than a hundred pages of various tripping through alternate universes. It makes even less sense than you can imagine. All this traipsizing around only serves to annoy and infuriate the few remaining readers, who by that time (and some fifty-odd dollars poorer) would be justified in demanding a few answers. Fortunately, the plotlines of the first two books finally intersect with the rest of the series a few scant pages before the end of Furious Gulf, with a reunion that won’t truly surprise most readers.

If you’ve come this far, you might as well read the last volume. Fortunately, Sailing Bright Eternity provides some good hard answers early on, which takes off the unbearable tediousness of some three hundred more pages of seemingly aimless wanderings through time and space in alternate dimensions. While there are some arresting images in the process, there is also a whole lot of tediousness. Benford goes everywhere, but ends up nowhere, and after so much investments, one has cause to wonder if that type of stuff isn’t too late and far too inconsequential. There is a conclusion of sort, though nothing that will truly knock your socks off. If ever you want to read only the essentials, simply turn to the concluding Timeline, which succinctly resumes in 4 pages all the events of the series. It’s pretty much everything you need to know.

After this grand odyssey through more than two thousand pages, and the entirety of space, time and other universes, the final result is less than underwhelming. Benford seems to be writing in loops, most of them bringing us back to the very same point than twenty, fifty, three hundred pages previously. The effect is frustrating.

And yet, there is a lot of good stuff in the series. At first, it smoothly departs from “normality” in an interesting future (though the second/third book break destroys this comfort). At last, it presents a vast battle with new interesting opponents and imaginative skirmishes. But in the middle… the series has som
e serious structural problems. From totally unjustifiable breaks in action to lengthy over-padded segments to the maddening loops mentioned earlier, the Galactic Center series bring new meaning to the word “frustration”. The problems aren’t limited to the structure, as Benford’s writing also varies considerably in terms of clarity, going from intentionally opaque tripe to fast-moving thriller prose in a blink.

All of which could be forgivable, even quirky in a snappy three-hundred-pages book. But stretched out over six volumes… that’s overstaying its welcome. Just face it; for this amount of money you could buy six other books at random, and they’d end up, on average, being a far better buy than the Galactic Center series.

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