In the Ocean of Night
By Gregory Benford
Published by The Library of Congress- National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Read by Gary Tipton
I have only read a few of Benford’s works so I was not really sure what I was expecting from this staple of the Science Fiction genre. What I found in In the Ocean of Night was a typical example of hard science fiction from the third quarter of the Twentieth Century. Since that’s when it was written, that should not be a surprise to anyone, least of all me.
This is the first book in Benford’s series, “Galactic Center” and according to Amazon.com it is, “A classic novel of man’s future and fate, written by the eminent American physicist and award-winning author of ‘Timescape.’” Yes. That is about right, but it leaves out a lot. It examines one of the most common scenarios in Science Fiction, the possible nature of alien life and how an encounter between it and humanity might go.
Before I go on, allow me to say that Mister Benford writes hard SF as good or better than anyone. Definitely he’s a heck of a lot better at it than I am. I don’t even attempt true hard SF as I try to follow the basic writer’s rule, “Write what you know.” However, I have to think that this particular book is not how he got his reputation.
My first impression was that it was incredibly episodic. When I looked the story up on-line I discovered that it had begun life as a short story and that explains a lot. When a short story, or even anything shorter than a full novel, is expanded into a novel there are a number of ways to do it. You could take the basic story, insert a few extra incidents and perhaps have the character talk about what they do when not doing whatever it is in the story. You can add different characters or bring in ones that are mentioned but get little or no page-time (like screen-time in a movie). You can also tack on a prologue and then continue the story after the actual short story and I think that is what happened here.
The problem when you continue on from where you left off is that most well-written short stories come to a definite and, hopefully, satisfying end. Sometimes just having he characters wake up the next day (or next decade) and go on with their lives can seem forced and, as in this case, can turn into a string or loosely tacked together episodes.
The end result was that the pacing of this story was jerky. It might have been better as an anthology of short stories which, for the most part, it really is. My main complaint is that it kept feeling like the story was just beginning and just as something happened it would all stop and start over again, there was very little attempt to flow from one episode to the next. A reader might be better served to read only one chapter per day.
On the plus side, Benford came up with some very thought-provoking alien intelligences and a manner of exploration by artificial intelligence that had a semblance of possible realism although it lost credibility points with attempts to use Bigfoot as proof of ancient alien contact. The obsession with Bigfoot (especially when a tribe of Bigfoots actually appear) was just too much to add into an otherwise reasonable story. However, as I recall Bigfoot was a fashionable fiction accessory at the time this was written (Well, gee, Ma! Everyone is doing it!) so maybe it just makes the story dated.
The story has a lot of good thought behind it even though the characters themselves were not particularly interesting – they were flat short-story characters; the sort you do not really get to know in only eight thousand words unless you want to dispose of the plot.
However, it was interesting enough to make me want to read the next book which, if my research is correct did not start out life as a short story.
The readers for the Library of Congress’s Talking Books can be a rather mixed lot. Many if not all of them are volunteer. Even the professional readers are volunteers. Keep in mind this is a program that produces audiobooks for the blind and physically handicapped and being a government-run program, they often have to go with whoever they can get.
In this case, I think Gary Tipton did a fairly good job. His reading is not outstanding; it does not sparkle, but it is a good solid reading without any of the commonly annoying traits I so often complain about. I certainly will not shy away from any other audiobooks he has narrated.
So, the story has a good solid hard SF basis but could have been better developed. However, I think Mister Tipton’s reading is what saved it for me.