(2004) Gregory Benford, Orbit, £6.99, pbk, 451 pp, ISBN 1-841-49188-8
A billion years in the future a human woman, Cley, is created from data held within the library. To her the World is a strange place of which, like a child, she must learn. She soon discovers that she is a primitive human compared to the more evolved 'Supras'. Then the library is attacked by an unknown force and it becomes apparent that Cley is somehow connected to a power struggle that spans the universe and, indeed, other dimensions.
So that is the set up. However the background to this book's writing is also germane to avid SF readers in that this novel was inspired as a direct result of a previous (1990) collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke when Benford wrote the novella Beyond the Fall of Night that was published with, and as a continuation of, a reprint of Clarke's Against the Fall of Night that in turn, way-back-when, inspired Clarke's 1956 classic novel The City and the Stars. In short Beyond Infinity has a solid SF pedigree. (Indeed the phrase 'against the fall of night' appears in Part VII, chapter III, third page (p416 in this edition).)
Now, Benford has exhibited remarkable writing in the past. Of special science fact & fiction note is the award-winningly brilliant Timescape and more recently Cosm (which UK publishers should be forced to reprint those years when our scientists have to submit to the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) just so that we have an anchor on the sense of wonder driving research and not goddamn bureaucracy). It also has to be said that Benford's portrayals of non-Americans are shall we say a little flat and occasionally there are or appear to be small slips in science. (I say 'appear to be' because the man's science is generally so on the ball I have wondered whether minor slips are intentional?) So how does Beyond Infinity shape up?
Well the novel is jam-packed with ideas and concepts. So much so that the protagonist soon acquires an uplifted animal guide aptly called 'Seeker' who explains things to Cley, and us. This enables the characters to go on walkabout over the Earth and then into space and 'beyond infinity'. The novel is a melee of massed notions that are underpinned by solid science so much so that one almost feels one can navigate the book by science alone: though of course you can't. However I think it was John Clute at the London City Lit SF class (1980s), who said that all SF could be dated. Beyond Infinity is so full of science that you can almost date its publication using science to the month! In this case for me the give-away is the comment that in geological history ferns were replaced by broadleaved trees (p230 this edition). Now, up to 2004 one of the assumptions in biology was indeed that ferns diversified early on when they dominated flora and that when angiosperm plants came along this prevented further fern diversification and that that ended their reign. Actually we now (2004) think that the big diversification of fern species took place after angiosperms evolved. What appears to have happened is that angiosperms created new ecological niches (and allowing more terrestrial biomass). Some of these new niches could be exploited by ferns so enabling them to diversify (Nature vol.428, pages 553-557). So the science in Beyond Infinity is very much in line with preferred-theories bang up to its 2004 publication, and this enables it to be dated just as Clute says SF can be. QED.
Of course the problem in having so much science underpinning a single work is that there are likely to be many specialists reading the book for whom the science has to be seen to work if disbelief is to be suspended: with such hard SF the science becomes integral to the work (though I guess that this may not apply to non-scientist readers but unfortunately SF academia is a long, long way off of analysing meaningful questions such as who reads, and likes, what let alone why?). For myself, with an interest in biosphere evolution, I kept saying that this future Earth simply 'could not work'. The problem for me was the carbon cycle and atmosphere thermodynamics. The Earth Benford was describing simply could not exist. There would be a runaway greenhouse effect and the next thing coming would be a transformation to a Venus-type world. This irritation kept bugging me whenever related biosphere matters cropped up (i.e. several times through the novel). Unfortunately for me Benford noticed, or decided to resolve, this problem late, some two-thirds the way through (in part 5, chapter 5, (page 302 this edition)). He got around the difficulty by moving the Earth's orbit further away from the Sun. However solving such problems is illustrative that Benford tries to cover, and generally succeeds in covering, all science bases and not just the astronomical physics which is his own area of expertise. Hats off to the man.
So, excellent science, solid hard SF, stacks 'n stacks of ideas, how does Beyond Infinity work as a novel? Well for my money Beyond Infinity is less a story (though there is one) and more of a travel tour guide of Gregory Benford's imagination. True the vistas he presents are spectacular and there is much to enjoy. However I'm the kind of guy that likes a story and also sometimes more is less. We kept on being dragged off to see this and that and such excursions seemed to do little to further the plot. I know that some readers will not mind this especially as there is so much to see but I do prefer it when Benford gives a greater balance to both the journey and the view. The novel has a certain breathlessness to it. While curios are fascinating, they need a greater context and relevance to the protagonists' goals to warrant such attention. That Benford was on a sort of personal mission writing this book is mentioned in an afterword (I like it when authors do that). Benford states that he felt that Beyond the Fall of Night as a novella had cramped all the ideas he had arising from the Clarkean challenge he had been set. He said he needed the larger canvas of a novel to rectify this. However he fails. The man's imagination and knowledge of science is simply not easily contained by the four hundred plus pages of Beyond Infinity, so that it too is cramped.
At the end of the day while this is a most interesting work it is not Benford at his best. On the other hand, if you don't mind somewhat of a wander and are happy with an almost catalogue presentation of ideas, then Beyond Infinity makes for a satisfying read. Meanwhile scientists can enjoy the science in the fiction. That the novel also has an SF pedigree going back half a century means that serious hard SF readers will want this one on their shelves. Gregory Benford has demonstrated past excellence and with Beyond Infinity he has shown that he is neither short of concepts or of scientific understanding that he can mine. Beyond Infinity may not be his best work but the portents are that we can yet expect work of distinction in the future. Currently the man has a full professional academic life, I look forward to the first half decade of his retirement from science. We can expect much from him.
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