In The Ocean of Night – Gregory Benford (1977)
‘2019: NASA astronaut Nigel Walmsley is sent on a mission to intercept a rogue asteroid on a collision course with earth. order to destroy the comet, he instead discovers that it is actually the shell of a derelict space probe – a wreck with just enough power to emit a single electronic signal…
2034: Then a reply is heard. Searching for the source of this signal that comes from outside the Solar System, Nigel discovers the existence of a sentient ship. When the new vessel begins to communicate directly with him, the astronaut learns of the horrors that await humanity. For the ship was created by an alien race that has spent billions and billions of years searching for intelligent life… to annihilate it.’
Blurb from the 2004 Aspect paperback edition
Nigel Walmsley (an astronaut of British origin) is on a mission to bomb and fragment the asteroid Icarus. Until now it has been in an eccentric but stable orbit, when it was observed venting a plume of gas which altered its trajectory, aiming it directly at Earth.
However, when entering a fissure in the asteroid to place explosives, Walmsley discovers that Icarus is not an asteroid at all, but a ship of inestimable antiquity which, with what appeared to be the last of its power, sends out a signal.
Some years later another ship enters the Solar System, and Nigel is part of the team assigned to study and interact with it.
Meanwhile, one of his partners, Alexandria (Walmsley is in a troilistic relationship with two women) is diagnosed with a potentially fatal pollen-related condition.
A new religion, The New Sons – a gallimaufray of pre-existing religious concepts – is gaining recruits at an alarming rate.
Nigel and his team manage to contact the machine intelligence controlling the alien ship and when Alexandria dies, she is briefly resurrected and ‘possessed’ by the alien who wishes to experience life upon Earth.
When Alexandria dies, the US President arranges – against Nigel’s better judgement – to cripple or destroy the alien ship in order to learn the secrets of their technology. When this fails, the ship leaves, but the wreckage of another ship is then discovered on the Moon and once more Nigel is recruited to help investigate its secrets.
It’s not clear why Benford chose to make his hero British, and ‘Nigel Walmsley’ reminds me of one of A Bertram Chandler’s Rim novels in which the hero is called ‘Derek’. We know Nigel is British only because he says ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’ a lot, occasionally in completely the wrong context.
‘Bugger All!’ for instance, as people in the UK will know, means ‘nothing’ and is never used as an exclamation. It’s a small quibble, but one would have thought that at the time of writing, and certainly when the book was being revised for republication, that Benford would have asked someone British to read through it and check the dialogue for authenticity.
On a more positive side, this is one of Benford’s best novels. One can’t help comparing Benford with Greg Bear since they are both scientists and tend to have a similar style. Neither do they shy away from confronting issues of import within contemporary society such as the chasm which exists between science and religion, or the dangers of having the church dictate government policy. Not having read the 1977 original version of this novel it’s not clear how much of the ‘New Sons’ aspect of the book has been revised, although it’s arguably far more of an issue today than it was in the Seventies. I would go so far as to say it’s a shame that Benford did not make this a Christian Right movement since it seems a bit far-fetched to imagine that a new religion would have overthrown Christianity in the States in such a short time. The Mormons have taken over a hundred years to achieve a significant population. Scientologists might have worked, although I suspect that law suits would have been on Mr Benford’s doormat before his publisher had read the last page.
The science, as always, is faultless and the characterisation is generally good. One certainly empathises with Walmsley’s frustration with the government, NASA, bureaucracy and the interference of the ‘New Sons’. One could argue that the novel suffers from a lack of cohesion since it’s arguably a book of two parts. Once ‘the Visitor’ has left, we move on to the crashed ship on the moon, which opens up a completely different can of worms involving alien tinkering with human evolution and Bigfoot, of all things.
Does this matter? Maybe not. After all, why should SF, generally thought of as the pariah of literary genres, be bound by the strictures of traditional literary formats?
Is it an enjoyable novel? Yes, it is. There have been far worse SF novels before, and some execrable ones since, and the only real criticism I can find is that Benford is obviously capable of being among the very best, but seldom seems to go that extra mile.