By the Light of That Ship in the Sky

In the Ocean of Night — Gregory Benford
Galactic Centre, book 1

ocean-of-night

The 1978 fix-up In the Ocean of Night is the first volume in Gregory Benford’s Galactic Centre series1.

In the far-off year of 1999, British-American astronaut Nigel Walmsley is part of a two-man team sent by NASA to the asteroid Icarus. Unexplained out-gassing has transformed a body remarkable only for its eccentric orbit into an impending Earth-impacter. Nigel and Len’s mission is to determine how much, if any, of Icarus remains. If enough material is left to present a significant risk to the Earth, they are to destroy or divert Icarus with the Egg, a fifty-megaton fusion bomb.

The hope was that nothing would remain after the Egg had been used. The expectation was that a chunk of rock and iron might head for Bengal. The reality was a surprise: the large mass that had survived the out-gassing was an alien spaceship.


Simply detonating the Egg would cost humanity potentially valuable information about the aliens; delaying detonation would put millions of South Asians at risk. Choosing between the good of mankind and the good of people who were only starving to death anyway is easy for Nigel and his team-mate. Their gamble pays off: the two astronauts manage to accomplish some salvage archaeology and also save a bunch of starving non-Americans.

Fifteen years later, Nigel and his two lovers Alexandria and Shirley are struggling with the revelation that Alexandria has lupus, possibly as a side-effect of exposure to pollution. Lupus can be managed but not cured. Some lupus victims live long, productive lives, but Alexandria is one of the unlucky minority whose disease progresses very rapidly.

Approaching individual death is put in a wider context when astronomers discover an alien interstellar probe nosing around Jupiter. The probe is dubbed the “Snark.” It is clear that it was built by beings who command a technology significantly more advanced than that wielded by humanity. Beings who may not be kindly, and who have sent a robot probe that may react unpredictably to the discovery of humanity. The entire human race may be at risk if the probe is left to its research. Any attempt to destroy the probe, however, may provoke massive retaliation.

Not to worry. NASA has a plan. Once again, Nigel is sent into space, armed with good intentions and a nuclear weapon….

 ~oOo~

The treatment of South Asia in this book is really very remarkable.

“How is that famine going?”

He sighed. “Worse than we expected. I guess as soon as word filtered down that Icarus might hit, all those dirt farmers left their crops and started preparing for the afterlife. That just aggravated the famine. The UN thinks there’ll be several million dead inside six months, even with our airlifts, and our sociometricians agree.”

“And that movement out of the impact area?”

“Bad. They just give up and won’t walk a step, Herb said. It must be their religion or something. I don’t understand it, I really don’t.”

and


“Even if the mass of Icarus is a tenth of what we thought, its energy of impact will still be thousands of times larger than Krakatoa. Think of the people in Bengal.”

“What’s left of them, you mean,” Len said. “The famine cycles have killed millions already, and they’ve been migrating out of the impact area for over a year now. Since the Indian government broke down nobody knows how many souls we’re talking about, Dave.”

“That’s right. But if you don’t care about them, Len, think about the dust that will be thrown into the upper atmosphere. That might bring on another Ice Age alone.”

Welcome to a Disco-era zeitgeist strongly influenced by Paul R. Ehrlich! But there’s also that part of the Disco Era shaped by American resentment that other, lesser, nations have egregiously out-competed the US, forcing Americans to watch, teeth grinding, as foreigners buy American companies. Brazil, perpetually the nation of tomorrow, puts in an appearance. Interesting, so does China and not the Disco-era favourite, Japan. Even more remarkably, Australia rounds out the trio of powerhouse economies—despite Australia being a desolate uninhabitable wasteland even less inviting than Canada 2.

There are other details that may catch modern eyes. One is common to books of this era: ignorance of of Moore’s Law.

“During peak periods, when the computers don’t have enough solid-state electronics banks left to do the job, they’re planning to use human neural inventories.”

They do this because computers are expensive and people are cheap. (The neural links used to turn people into mainframe peripherals do play an important role in the plot.) The failure to foresee a rapid development of computing power and speed also informs a wider setting. A grand conflict is shaping galactic history: between the machine cultures, long-lived but generally stagnant, and the intelligent animals like humans, who don’t last long but whose inventiveness presents a serious threat to the machines.

(Of course, if Benford had been an early believer in the Singularity , I’d be complaining about that too. Yeah, picky.)

It’s not all Disco Era weirdness (with obligatory O’Neill-style space cities and Bussard ramjets to boot). There are other things that strike me as non-Disco weird: the casualness with which NASA doles out impressively large nukes, the failed Chinese attempt to instigate WWIII between the SU and US, followed by a collective shrug, and the odd lack of a reaction to a 30 MY clean fusion explosion that scours clean a 75-km-wide stretch of Oregon.

The novel features not just one but several alien encounters. A cornucopia of alien encounters! At least compared to the baseline of alien encounters, which is none. Why?

  • Repeated contact with aliens is plausible due to the recent human development of space flight.
  • Oh yeah, and because Icarus managed to broadcast some data before it was nuked, alerting the Snark to our system in particular.
  • The Icarus aliens may well have created our recent lineage.

It has been decades since I read this. It’s interesting to see what I remembered and what I didn’t 3.

  • The unstable polyamorous triad but not Alexandria’s resurrection.
  • The speculation that human evolution was shaped by aliens but not the ridiculous Bigfoot subplot.
  • Benford’s dabbling in New Wave stylistic heresies but not the vague mysticism re the machine/life divide.

I remember liking this book a lot as a teen. Over the years, the bits that appealed to me stuck and the rest went into the recycle bin.

In the Ocean of Night is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Feel free to comment here.

Please send corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com

1: Although it seems to me that the connection between In the Ocean of Night and the direct sequel Across the Sea of Suns to the core Galactic Centre books ( Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989), Furious Gulf (1994), Sailing Bright Eternity (1995), and A Hunger for the Infinite (1999)) was only made explicit a few volumes into the Galactic Core series.

2: I can imagine the Australians making squinchy faces right about now, but their whole country has about as many people in it as Shanghai. Canada is in much the same boat.

3: An issue that never occurred to me in 1978 is why it took humans so long to spot the Snark. It’s basically riding a long-duration fusion bomb and those, as we know, should be visible from a long distance . It’s not due to an inexplicable lack of telescopes. It’s not that telescopes are oddly weak. Once they notice the Snark, the humans have no problem following it around the Solar system (for that matter, the Snark started spotting planets when it is still a good distance from the Sun.). The only plausible answer is that the fusion torch was never active when human astronomers looked at Aquila, the patch of sky where the Snark was to be found.

Speaking of Aquila, there’s a hat tip here to a factoid Arthur C. Clarke first noted. Aquila only covers 0.25% of the sky but between 1899 and 1936, five of the twenty observed novae appeared in Aquila. Of course, very small samples can be skewed in misleading ways. Or perhaps something wicked this way comes?


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