I still remember finding the science fiction section at the middle school library. It felt like I had only learned to truly read a few days before, though I know that the mind plays tricks the older you get. The first book I read on my own was the novel Redwall; of course, my mom read half of it and then I learned to read it and read the end. It really opened my eyes, being able to dive headfirst into a whole another world. But the science fiction that I found at this library was a whole order of magnitude different than the friendly woodland creatures and evil stoats and weasels of Mossflower.
As a middle schooler, I didn’t really fit in with a lot of the other kids school. Partly because I insisted upon being different, and I saw that as only a positive, but also partly because I had very little in common with the other kids. Instead of agonizing over who I was going to sit with, throwing a basketball around, or generally causing a ruckus over lunch hour, I had other ideas. As soon as the bell would ring I would hurry to the cafeteria, get my $0.10 carton of milk and whatever slop happened to be available on the hotline and scarf it down with single-minded purpose. No hackey sack circles or soap shoes for me. All of the time that I was spending eating, was time I wouldn’t be able to walk through the stacks of the library. And this being the west coast, the library was pretty liberal in its acquisitions. If you’ve never read the novel Friday by Robert Heinlein, it’s got some pretty lurid scenes. Imagine picking that up as an 11-year-old. Some of the more interesting bits went right over my head, of course and without the ubiquitous access to knowledge provided to us by the internet, a lot of those questions went unanswered for many years. But I still read it, and I drank it in.
The library was old, but it’s still had a lot of relatively new science fiction in it. Sure, the classics were all there; Silverberg and Wells and Verne. But authors I’d never heard of before; Larry Niven, Frederick Pohl, Jerry Pournell, Joe Haldeman, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear. And someone that some people still haven’t run across to this day; Gregory Benford. No book that I found in that library however captivated me quite so much as Benford’s Galactic Center Saga.
Probably my biggest mistake, if you can really make a mistake in reading science fiction, was jumping into the series right in the middle of it. The galactic center series covers a staggering amount of time when telling the story of humanity. From the very first contact with an alien civilization, to the understanding that machine intelligences rule the universe, this series is hard science fiction, space opera, deeply personal, and simply fantastic all at the same time.
When perusing my books just now for this article, I noticed that the first book that I read, Great Sky River, sitting next to the others here on my shelf. It still has the imprint of the library where I first read it! That book has managed to stay with me all of these years through five major moves back and forth across the country, in boxes and on shelves as a reminder of the wonder of a good story. Even now, as I try to hammer out a few thousand words of entertainment, it’s easy to look at storytelling like this and think, “Nope. I’ll never be that good.” But my research and reading brought up an interesting tidbit; these six books took Benford a staggering 25 years to write. So maybe just because we fledgling storytellers can’t write the next Neuromancer, that doesn’t mean we don’t have 25 years of triumph in us. There is hope!
It would take several thousand words to do justice to the general arc of Benford’s storytelling. To sum it all up shortly, humanity rises to a challenge, falls, and rises again in the strangest way possible. Some of the books are set here on the Earth that we know and the relatively near future, and the stunning conclusion (if that phrase isn’t too overused), takes us 40,000 years in the future and all the way to the center of the galaxy. But more importantly, it takes us to the center of what it means to be human. If you haven’t already run into it, I cannot recommend another series more than Benford’s Galactic Center. Whether you start with In the Ocean of Night, the first book in the series, or follow my footsteps and begin with Great Sky River, you won’t go wrong. Happy reading, and I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below!