Furious Gulf (Galactic Center #5)
By Gregory Benford
Published by The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Read by John Polk
Oops! I was supposed to post this two weeks ago. On the plus side I’m now set for the next three weeks or more…
I think I may finally be warming up to this series. At least that’s how I felt at the start of the story. Bishop Family, along with the remnants of the other chess-themed families are once again traveling through space aboard the Starship Argo, having picked up bunches of people named after playing cards and a few nonhumans from the last strange world they visited. They are still fleeing the “Mechs” a culture of sapient machines intent on wiping out organic lifeforms, although from what I can tell they are not very consistent about it since some seem to be content to keep humans as pets while others want them all dead. I keep hoping I’ll get a glimpse of a plan behind the madness, but I suspect we have to assume that the Mechs do what they do because that is what Mechs do. It’s also possible that across an entire galaxy that there are various groups of Mechs each with their own priorities and that these various groups have different goals and are not one homogenous culture. Or… Mechs are as crazy as organic life is… deal with it?
Meanwhile Captain Killean, the leader of the people aboard the Argo has set a course for the center of the Galaxy (hence living up to the name of the series) but he has aged a bit since the last book and now is a stubborn, obsessed and possibly crazy older man. Perhaps it’s all those voices in his head. These far future humans have managed to hold on to a technology in which the memories of their ancestors can be implanted as chips in their spines. These chips, called aspects, can be consulted for the valuable memories, but sometimes they can get a little out of hand.
In Toby’s case, one of those aspects is something more, a “personality” of his father’s now deceased wife who Killean wants to speak to directly even though that is against all custom and propriety of these future people. Also, on Killean’s mind is the fact that the ship’s gardens are failing and the slowly starving people on his ship are starting to have mutinous ideas.
So… Killean plunges the ship into a black hole. Okay, I’m leaving a lot out, but that is where it all goes really strange. It turns out there is a human civilization close in toward the event horizon and they seem to have been able to hold off the Mechs and everyone else they do not want. However, this black hole civilization offers an opportunity for trade of both goods and information. However, time is strange this close to the black hole and so is the story.
However, this is not Killean’s story so much as it is Toby’s. Toby has grown up since the last book and is now on the verge of manhood, and maybe just a step over the verge, so amid the strangeness of the setting we also have Toby’s own personal discoveries. In all it’s a fairly rich book with a lot of story to tell.
I’ll admit that because of the fact I was listening and not reading this one, I lost track several times of what was going on and how some characters got to where they were and to where they eventually were going. Had I been reading a real book or even an e-book, I could have flipped back a few pages and tried to figure out what I had missed. Listening, though I had to hope I could piece it all together as it went and that did not always happen.
Yes, I could have gone back to relisten to passages, but as I have explained in the past, I do most of my listening while driving and maybe I’m a bit old-school, but I try not to get distracted from what the idiot in the car in front of me is doing. In most books that doesn’t matter. This time I felt like I had blinked and ended up in a new world at least three times. So, my first recommendation is to read this book, if you can, before attempting to listen to it, or if listening, try to do so as a primary activity and not as background noise. And definitely, do not start the series with this volume! I think you could probably skip the first book and maybe the second without getting lost, although there’s a lot of back story leading up to the tale of the Bishops that help to make sense of it all, but by the third book we have a firmly connected story arc that must be followed volume by volume.
In spite of my confusions, however, this is solid hard science fiction of the sort that it helps to be at least somewhat acquainted with astrophysics, relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, etc. because otherwise some of the setting might make no sense to the reader. You don’t have to be an expert with a degree in physics and to be able to understand the math behind it all but having a layman’s acquaintance with some of the concepts definitely helps keep this from seeming like impossible nonsense since Benford was busy telling the story and did not take a lot of time out to explain the situation in detail. That, by the way, is probably a good thing, because the explanations alone would (and have) filled tomes on their own and this is supposed to be fiction, not a college-level course.
All told, so far, I think that it was worth getting through the previous book to get to where we are now. This opinion may or may not change with the next book, of course.
Once again, John Polk has delivered a solid reading. He does not engage in a slew of “funny voices” that grate on the nerves and sometimes are hard to understand. However, as I have said in the past, he also leaves no vocal clues as to who is talking so you really have to listen to the text or you could get lost. Fortunately, Benford writes sufficient vocal tags (he said, she announced, etc.) for a listener to follow and it was hard to get confused in that manner.
One complaint, however. I thought Mister Polk might have been trying too hard. Everything was read in an overtly dramatic tone of voice. I kept thinking of the narrator from the old Batman TV series from the 1960’s. Most folks remember that for the campy writing and performances (sorry, kids, Adam West is still my favorite Batman!), but I also recall that it used to run two nights a week with the Wednesday show always ending in a cliff-hanger to be resolved the following evening. And the narrator would cut in and say something like “How will our heroes escape this time? Tune in tomorrow, same bat-time, same bat-channel!” Of course, the line was even cheesier than that, but hey, it’s Batman! Anyway, Polk’s reading was dramatic in that style and I kept expecting Batman and Robin to swing in for a non-sequitur battle with the Joker. Biff! Pow! Bam!
However, as I said, the series seems to be working up to a fine crescendo and may even have a great finale, so I guess I will tune in next time… same bat-time, same bat channel.