Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Beyond Infinity

In his Afterword to his novel Beyond Infinity, Greg Benford comments that “Years ago...David Hartwell used the term ‘transcendental adventure’ and I thought...this novel might be an example.” That is probably as good a description of Beyond Infinity as anything I can say about it beyond describing it as a thought-provoking blending of Olaf Stapledon meets Arthur C. Clarke.

The setting is a far-future Earth populated by numerous intelligent races, all of them either evolved from humans or other current inhabitants of Earth, including:

• Cley, the main character, who is considered an “Original,” although she seems somewhat further advanced than 21st century humans;
• Supras, the ultimate in human evolution, who tolerate Originals as we would tolerate children;
• Seeker, who resembles a highly-involved raccoon, yet shows depths of intelligence beyond Originals and perhaps even beyond Supras.

There are two main plot threads throughout the book, the first being Cley’s attempt to deal with the Supras who treat her gently and caringly, but for some reason refuse her the type of freedom she craves; the second is the mysterious threat of an interstellar entity called the Malign which killed all the remaining Originals and seems determined to eliminate Cley as well.

Seeker rescues Cley from an attack which destroys the Library of Life while killing the other Originals, then leads her on a frantic chase through a 4-D portal, which sets the tone for much of the book by involving lots of higher-dimensional mathematical speculation, and then into near-Earth space aboard a living gargantuan spacecraft.

Along the way we learn much about the millions of years of history between our era and the setting of the book, including the history of the Malign and its nemesis, another interstellar entity known as the Multifold, both of which were apparently created by humans. We also encounter other living beings such as:

• pinwheels, which are living transportation systems;
• semi-intelligent animals known as semisents;
• living gargantuan spaceships such as jonahs and leviathans;
• skysharks which live in space and prey on the gargantuan spaceships.

Once Seeker and Cley arrive in space, the novel tightens as the Supra and Malign both close in on Cley, the former to use her as part of an elaborate defense against the latter. The ultimate battle scene between the forces of good and evil certainly qualifies as transcendental adventure, and requires more than a grain of suspension of disbelief, but Benford pulls it off about as well as possible.

Overall, this was a strong novel, equal parts sense of wonder, thought-provoking ideas, and exciting plot. It was supposedly based on Benford’s earlier novella “Beyond the Fall of Night,” which was written as a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s classic “Against the Fall of Night.” Not having read Clarke’s novella in several decades, and never having read Benford’s sequel, I cannot comment at this time on the connections. However, such lack of knowledge seemed to have no impact on my enjoyment of this splendid book.

I guess an old-timer can still show the “radical New Space Opera” writers a trick or two.

1 Comments:

  • I can't say I was that impressed, myself. The attempt to present a story that depended explicitly on past was were interesting, but the pacing was uneven and the writing flat. No awe was inspired, unfortunately.

    By Blogger niall, At 7:44 AM  

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