Great Sky River (Galactic Center #3)
By Gregory Benford
Published by The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Read by John Polk
I wanted to like this book. IU really did. Gregory Benford is widely considered to be one of the greats of Science Fiction and other reviewers, when I looked them up, seemed to think this was a good book. I am just not one of them. No accounting for taste, maybe.
My first thought about this book as it began was, “What the heck is going on?” After that I wondered why the characters all sounded like something out of Orwell’s 1984. While both questions were eventually answered more or less, I did not find them satisfying answers and the clipped “Newspeak” sort of talking was, at best, annoying and at worst, distracted from the story. What’s worse is that it took roughly half the book just to get a handle on what the situation was.
Even then the story is not really to my tastes, although it really should have been. In any case, the humans of this world belong to six different tribes each named after a chess piece, although I am not sure if they remember what Chess is. Each adult as a sort of rite of passage has some of the “aspects” of former tribe members implanted in them. These aspects seem to be actively thinking collection of memories of the now-dead people they represent so while the ragtag remnants of mankind might not understand technology they sort of remember how to use it. Their world has been conquered by the Mechs (Meks? I’m not sure how it is spelled since I have only listened to it) who are a robotic people/ It eventually the Mechs have a use for humans, or at least parts of them but for the most part humans are a sort of vermin whose population must be controlled.
At one time, the humans lived in large settlements called “Citadels,” but the Mechs crushed them during a period known as “The Calamity.” Now, some years later, the Bishop Clan is wandering and still looking for a safe place to live. They eventually meet up with a bunch of Rooks and one woman who might be the last Knight and then they stumble on a new sort-of Citadel – more of a small town with delusions – in which some the Kings live. That pretty much sums up the first half of the book. The rest of the book involves how one man of the Bishops had to deal his both his own leader and the leader of the Kings as well as a “Crafter” Mech who works with the Kings and try to put up a defense against a new mysterious Mech called the Mantis. FTR, until the end of the book there is no hint as to whether these are the last humans left in the Universe. It certainly seems that way during most of the book.
I won’t go into more detail, but to me the end felt like it was where the second chapter should have started. There was a struggling, both internal and external to get there, but not a lot of action. What the story does have Are some very interesting and different ideas as to what a Mech culture might be like. In some ways I wondered if Mechs would have had philosophy and art as they do here, albeit a different sort of art that the humans do not appreciate (nor do I, for that matter_) and they even have a sort of substitute for religion, albeit one that is based on their own immortality and higher beings among them who really do exist. Okay, it’s not religion, really, but it feels like it fits the cultural niche religion does for humans.
Loads of interesting ideas, but I did not think there was much of a story to hold it together. Definitely a case of a story that should have been a novelette in length at best.
John Polk delivered a reasonably good reading of this story. It was firm and even and quite easy to listen to. If I have any complaints it was that he left no vocal clues as to who was talking when there was dialogue going on. I realized I have also complained about readers who rely on “Funny voices” so perhaps I am being inconsistent, but I think there is some room for vocal variety without sounding like a reject from the Looney Toons recording studio.
In part, I think the blame goes to the author since all living humans in this story talk exactly alike, all recorded aspects of humans talk alike, although not like the living ones, and the Mechs all sound like the other Mechs so there is not a lot of room for variety, but it might have been nice to be able to tell whether a man, woman or child was speaking without listening to the verbal tags in the dialogue.
However, this is not a strong complaint and it really was much better than if he had resorted to funny voices. So, all told, while the reading was good, I was not satisfied by the story itself. It kept me waiting for action that only came in fits and starts and was always too understated and isolated by long plodding passages that left me muttering at the sound system, “Oh just do something already!”