Killeen’s got 99 problems, and planetfall’s just one: Cyborgs, mechs and humans (oh my!) plague humanity’s remnant in ‘Tides of Light’

November 9, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 9, 2013

At the beginning of Tides of Light, Gregory Benford’s 1989 science fiction novel, Family Bishop is experiencing a moment of relative calm. That does not mean, however, that danger isn’t lurking.

This book, which GoodReads identifies as the fourth in Benford’s six-volume Galactic Center saga, centers on Killeen, the leader (“cap’n”) of a band of not quite 200 humans. The group boasts an unusual blend of technical savvy and scientific ignorance. This combination has characterized humans for years since the collapse of their civilization, which long ago occupied technically advanced space-going Chandeliers.

Bishop is aboard the ancient starship Argo, which they’ve used to flee their ancestral home on the doomed planet Snowglade. The vessel is approaching its mysterious destination, a distant solar system with a habitable planet. However, Argo is being shadowed by a spacecraft controlled by the mechs — a robotic lifeform that is alternatively indifferent or inimical to humanity.

This element will turn out to be just about the least of Bishop’s problems. The world they hope to make their new home is occupied by a large Tribe of humans who are in the sway of an erratic leader. Even worse, a group of large, powerful insectoid cyborgs known as Cybers recently arrived in the system, which they hope to refashion into a sort of interstellar beacon.

In this early scene, Killeen and his lieutenants are on the bridge, inspecting a view of the strange new planet ahead of them. I should note here that the Bishops each carry neural chips that contain Aspects and Faces — downloaded minds, in essence.

“What…what’s that?” Cermo asked, forgetting that it was good rule never to question a Cap’n. Killeen let it pass, because he could well have asked the same question.

Against a mottled background hung a curious pearly thing, a disk penetrated at its center by a thick rod. Strange extrusions pointed from the rod at odd angles. Instinctively Killeen knew it was no Chandelier. It had none of the legendary majesty and lustrous webbed beauty.

“Mechwork, could be,” he said.

Shibo nodded. “It circles above the same spot on the planet.”

“Is there some way we can approach the planet, keeping this thing always on the other side?” Killeen asked.

He still had only a dim comprehension of orbital mechanics. His Arthur Aspect had shown him many moving displays of ships and stars, but little of it had stuck. Such matters were far divorced from the experience of a man who had lived by running and maneuvering on scarred plains.

Once, when Killeen had asked if a ship could orbit permanently over a planet’s pole, Ling had laughed at him — an odd sensation, for the tinny voice seemed to bring forth echoes of other Aspects Killeen had not summoned up. It had taken him a while to see that such an orbit was impossible. Gravity would tug down the unmoving ship.

“I can try for that in the close approach. But even now this thing could have seen us.”

“We will avoid it then, Officer Shibo. Give me a canted orbit, so this satellite can’t see us well.”

Besides this trio, there are three other Bishops who feature prominently in the narrative: Killeen’s son, Toby; Besen, Toby’s girlfriend; and Jocelyn, Killeen’s ambitious deputy. But the interplay among these humans is really secondary to Killeen’s ongoing thoughts about the challenges he and his Family are confronting.

Actually, the interplay among the humans takes a back seat to something else, as well: The tale of Quath, an intelligent, capricious and also ambitious Cyber whose destiny increasingly becomes intertwined with Killeen’s. The Tukar’ramin, which leads this solar system’s Hive of podia (as the Cybers call themselves), has assigned Quath to investigate the Argo. Soon, she finds herself hunting the Bishops after they land on the planet recently captured by the podia.

Tides of Light is packed with some great stuff. At one point, Quath throws Killeen down a shaft that the podia’s giant world-destroying machine has carved out of the planet; the swiftly falling captain must contend with the fierce heat in the planetary core as he devises a plan to escape gravity’s pull. The Bishops at various points clash with the spacecraft tracking with them, the mech space station and powerful bands of podia.

The podia are a fascinating creation; for them, status is symbolized by additional legs, which individuals are awarded based upon their accomplishments. And Benford has also devised a virtually immortal space-faring biomechanical being known as the Skysower, which plays a prominent role in the culture of the Tribe and a key battle late in the book.

So the book has fun and amazing things. Alas, while I enjoyed reading Tides of Light, the story just never quite gelled for me. Killeen is an interesting character, and he is caught in intriguing circumstances, but I never deeply identified with the peril he felt. I don’t know if the problem lay with the book or with my possibly flagging interest in science fiction — as I said, I enjoyed my reading experience, and I devoured the book in a few days, but I never fell in love with this novel the way I do with books that truly enthrall me.

I will probably seek out additional Benford tales — I believe that many years ago I read two earlier volumes in the Galactic Center sequence, and I’m intrigued by the galaxy-shaking revelations that could be contained in other books in the saga. But I won’t make finding more Benford stories a priority, and at best I can only give Tides of Light a half-hearted recommendation.

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