This story is about a book that was instrumental to me as a writer. Benford, and authors like him, helped shape my ideas about fiction and enabled my own novel, Steel in the Blood, which is available for pre-order now through New Degree Press.
I grew up in a small town in Washington state. Some folks may call it a city, and since I’ve grown up and traveled a bit I’ve realized that it isn’t actually that small. But for the sake of argument, let’s call it a small town.
The summers were long and hot, and since we were on the Eastern side of the Cascades there was not a lot of rainfall. I remember the first house we lived in was so hot and the air conditioning was so poor, that we used to walk all the way down to the Columbia River in the evening just to cool down. We would swim out just a little bit into the river, murky where the silt was stirred up along the river bank. We didn’t even bring towels, just ran home completely soaked in an effort to be as cool as we could for as long as we could.
When we get home, we didn’t have cable and our old box of a television only got a signal about half the time. So the only real options were board games and books. I never became a master of chess or checkers, so it was usually books for me. Luckily we had an incredibly well-stocked library at the school, with everything from Kant to Dostoevsky to Asimov. It was there that I ran into an author named Gregory Benford, who wrote most of his books throughout the seventies, eighties, and early nineties. Me being who I was I grabbed whatever book had the flashiest cover and the coolest blurb on the back without much attention paid to where things were at in a series. I would bring these books home, and then in the cool of the evening, fresh from the icy embrace of the Columbia River, I would dive into the pages, completely forgetting about anything that was happening in the real world as I joined people across time and space to worlds that never were.
Great Sky River is in the middle of the series, chronologically at least. The setting is vast, rivaling the skills of most of the mainstream science fiction that’s written even today. It is set not just at the rise and peak of humanity’s power, but actually past that into the waning Twilight years of our species. Humanity, locked in a struggle for resources with machine intelligences, is being slowly, relentlessly, and effectively stomped out. It’s not even that the machine intelligences carry any sort of grudge or malice against humanity, it’s simply a question of competition. Set towards the galactic center where energy is far more abundant, the machines terraform planets to their own specifications – mainly cold and dry. Whatever they find, they turn to their own use, and this includes humans. Or what’s left of humans.
The main protagonist is one of the last few remaining people. They scrape out an existence on their once fertile world, and carefully hoard the knowledge of those that die as more valuable than even food or water. One machine, however, has taken a great interest in humans and Killeen ends up locked in a delicate dance, attempting to save what’s left of his people without giving himself over to the machine.
The story inspired me largely because of its scope and scale. There are certainly other works out there of similar ambition, but this was the first that I had encountered. Books like Ring and Coalescent are on a similar scale, if you’re a Stephen Baxter fan. But it’s not just the scope and scale of the time and the science that’s involved, it’s the characters. The way Benford puts together real, believable people in a desperate situation is absolutely amazing. The people are inherently human, there’s always politics, little power struggles, and fights over supremacy or resources-but when threatened the tribe always closes ranks and comes together. This touch of humanity really makes this more than just a story that explores an interesting scientific concept.
I think that all the stories, science fiction and otherwise, that explore this question of what it means to be human, or inhuman at times, are the ones that will truly resonate down through the ages. After all, isn’t all the world a stage?If you run into it, I would highly recommend picking up any of Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center novels, whether you start with the one in the middle like I did or at the beginning. We could all use a grand sweeping tail to bring us a little closer to our own humanity these days.