Science Fiction

Horror Stories for Bright People


In the Ocean of Night, New York: Bantam Spectra, 321 pages, $3.95 paper
Across the Sea of Suns, New York: Bantam Books, 353 pages, $3.95 paper
Great Sky River, New York: Bantam Spectra, 292 pages, $17.95
All by Gregory Benford

These are three independent, quite different novels, though set in the same universe. Read them one at a time, in any order.

They are horror stories for bright people. Author Gregory Benford's theme is diversity itself—the diversity of life, rising everywhere that organics may form and combine—always opposed to the spread of cybernetic intelligences across the universe.

Those cybernetic "mechs" began as self-replicating, artificial intelligences built by organic species who destroyed themselves. The mechs destroy organic civilizations wherever found…but it's a war without end. The cybernetics always win, but there's always life and intelligence rising somewhere else. Mechs and organics form alliances, switch sides…

It's a roomy concept. These stories sprawl.

Benford plays games with the language, using free verse, broken typesetting, murky slang, and whatever else will tell his story. He writes like an English major. Yet this is the hardest of hard science fiction. Gregory Benford is a plasma physicist currently teaching in California. The dialogue among scientists is wonderfully real; the political infighting is realistically boring. (One man's opinion. You may love it. Otherwise, skim.)

Benford knows the rules—astrophysics, quantum mechanics, medicine, biology, you name it, he knows it—maybe he knows university people he can ask. And he never cheats: you can have interstellar ramjets, but you can't crack lightspeed.

In the Ocean of Night is four stories covering several decades of the near future and much of the life of Nigel Walmsley, astronaut. Political and military maneuverings are constantly getting in the way of Walmsley's goal: to learn.

The solar system has been visited by mechanical intelligences—"mechs"—and by organics who may have tried to protect the solar system from them.The asteroid Icarus, one of many real-world earth-grazing asteroids, turns out in Benford's saga to be a huge old spacecraft; a blowout has altered its course and aimed it at Earth, at India. I was delighted when Walmsley delayed destroying it to study the spacecraft more closely. After all, reflected Walmsley, the ship was mostly hollow, not that massive…the knowledge was priceless. Icarus could still be blown apart just above the atmosphere…and it's only India.

The Snark, introduced in another of the stories, is an information-gathering probe that winds up in mechanical mind-contact with Walmsley and his wife, Alexandria. Walmsley follows Alexandria, dead and temporarily revived by the Snark, while she serves as Snark's information channel. His later mission to the Snark includes a fusion missile to destroy it.

A wrecked ship on the Moon carries the secret of interstellar flight and communications hardware that will alert other cybernetics to the existence of Man. While Walmsley is exploring the ship—and reaching enlightenment through a blast of insight from machine storage—his colleague Mr. Ichino is tracking down a life form on Earth. Remember Chariots of the Gods? The aliens meddled with Bigfoot, and that branch of humanity stopped advancing; the nearly extinct remnants still worship abandoned alien tools.

Life goes on.

Across the Sea of Suns, set decades later, is two stories running concurrently. We find Walmsley as part of an interstellar expedition. His ship Lancer is powerful technology: a hollowed-out asteroid with a ramscoop field to use the interstellar medium for fuel. Population is in the thousands. Over the course of the novel, Lancer will track a signal to Isis, a world ruined by cybernetic attack. In another solar system the ship will be immobilized by a cybernetic warship; Walmsley will explore the interior of a small-world-sized ocean within a shell of ice and will find refugees from the first world living within.

Meanwhile, Earth's oceans have been seeded with other technology-minded organic intelligences. They were kidnapped, they're mad as hell, and they blame us. Orbiting Starshield devices have destroyed each other in the initial confusion as to who is the enemy. Earth is at war.

You would not be wrong to call this two horror stories told in alternate chapters. You will come to know the characters; you will care what happens to them. What threatens them is dreadful. The machines own the universe. Locally there may be victories, but in the wide sense the machines are unbeatable.

What keeps Benford from becoming Stephen King here is complexity. It's hard to be scared out of your socks when you're keeping track of astrophysics, planetary dynamics, esoteric chemistry, and the social infighting peculiar to scientific minds at work. Only a polymath—a top science fiction writer, say—can really grasp the horror of the ancient, ongoing war.

But Life fights back. Even if men die, if Man dies, life is unbeatable, too. On Earth, peace is made with the involuntary invaders, and a resistance movement against the machines begins. Walmsley, piloting Lancer, invades the cybernetic guardian at terrible cost in lives and is presently in possession of a ship that could take them home…or to the galactic core.

In Great Sky River, tens of thousands of years have passed. This novel has a unity the previous ones didn't try for. The focus starts small; it's some time before a context emerges.

We find humans on Snowglade, a world that was once damp jungle and man-built cities. The machines don't like wet worlds…but they came anyway, long ago. Terraforming has dried the planet until desert and machines cover most of the surface. The man-built cities are smashed.

Men move in small tribes. Organic glop intended for partly organic machines forms their food source. They steal gear from the mechs and adapt it for their own use: armor built to augment their strength, seeker missiles, sensory interfacings, and recordings of the memories of their dead.

Hunting humans is not of high priority, but the mech cities raid each other, and the security mechs are dangerous enough. Men are nearly extinct. "Suredeath" comes when a hunter machine scans a human's mind in one quick flash, destroying the nervous system in the process.

One group, the Bishop tribe, has long since voted to turn off their sex urges; they don't have energy to spare. They must hoard their resources, their energy, for running. Their important senses are mechanical; their memories are augmented by recordings of older human minds; they're dead without their mechanical armor. They're half mech themselves.

Now you've got a horror story.

And it still isn't Cujo. The people of Bishop tribe are hard to identify with; they've veered too far from human, in ways that become apparent as the book progresses.

They're still alive in a world covered by the mechs. They use the machines and factories as resources…and vice versa. They don't yet understand what use the mechs plan for them. And it's the bottomline basic humanity of Bishop tribe that makes the ending powerful.

Larry Niven is a leading author of science fiction. His most recent book, The Smoke Ring, has just been published by Ballantine/Del Rey Books.