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Forward thinking

Beyond Infinity: A Novel, Gregory Benford, Warner Aspect Books: 338 pp., $23.95

March 07, 2004|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

A billion years is a long, long time. The dinosaurs weren't even anticipatory gleams in the eyes of the simple creatures that inhabited the Earth a billion years ago -- if they had eyes at all. The Earth a billion years from now is almost beyond imagining, though Gregory Benford, the Nebula Award-winning author of "Eater," "The Martian Race," "Timescape" and the "Galactic Center" series, gives it a shot in his latest science-fiction novel, "Beyond Infinity."

Science fiction, as Benford notes in an afterword, is an "idea-intensive genre," and the value of this book lies more in its speculations about "where evolution and technology might take us" than in its mixture of a coming-of-age story with an extended chase sequence. At one level, "Beyond Infinity" is little more than a girl-and-her-dog yarn in which the dog, like Lassie or Rin-Tin-Tin, is smarter than the girl and protects her from successive perils.

The girl, Cley, is an "Original," an "Ur-human," who lives in the forests of an Earth that is being re-greened after ages of desertification. She and her people are treated condescendingly by the more evolved Supras, who are plugged into vast machine intelligences. A restless soul, longing for her absent, space-roaming father, Cley falls in love with a Supra and comes to work with him in the Library of Life, where records and genetic material from all human history are stored.

The library is a handy device that helps Benford with the chore that burdens every science-fiction writer: having to spend so much time describing and explaining new things. Lecture material clogs the action and interrupts emotional continuity even after mysterious forces from space scorch the Earth, devastating the library, killing Cley's lover and every Original on the planet except her. She recovers from her wounds with the aid of the "dog," Seeker -- actually a raccoon-like creature who, like Spock on "Star Trek," combines benevolence with an off-putting lack of warmth.

It turns out that Cley, precisely because she's the most primitive hominid on Earth, has a key role to play in saving the galaxy from the Malign, an enormous being that has formulated a total theory of the universe and (as if it had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge) turned evil. Long ago, humans like Cley helped imprison the Malign in the gravity of a black hole. Now it has wiggled free and is bent on revenge.

The Supras, an effete lot who let robots do their heavy lifting, aren't much help. Only Seeker knows how the fight can be waged. Partly to toughen Cley up, partly just to keep her alive, Seeker flees with her into space, which has become populated with many strange entities -- a living stick hundreds of miles long that spins like a pinwheel, each end touching Earth in turn; living spaceships called Leviathans that are as biologically diverse as little worlds. One of Benford's ideas is that space is a better habitat for life than rocky planets are, once life has evolved to a certain point, just as life on Earth outgrew its tide-pool origins.

"Beyond Infinity" hints that a sequel is coming. The final battle with the Malign is oddly anticlimactic. Subplots concerning the existence of higher dimensions in the universe -- the Malign wants to break into such realms, ancient humans once disappeared into them, and Cley and Seeker at one point are trapped in a "tubeworld" between the third dimension and the fourth -- are add-ons in this book but may prove to be central in the next. Readers who struggled with high school science be warned: Benford, a physicist, writes "hard" sci-fi and he'll stretch your brains.

"Centuries of speculative writing have shown us that often our principal sin lies in not being daring enough," he says, but the necessity of communicating with his readers is like gravity, limiting how high he can soar. Benford needs Cley because neither he nor we could comprehend or identify with a more-evolved creature. He has to write in contemporary English, and phrases such as "gal pal" and "catcher's mitt" litter his characters' thoughts and conversation. This is only partly due to carelessness. To invent a language free of anachronisms, Benford would have to sacrifice intelligibility, not to mention the liveliness of his prose. And he recognizes that what we really want to know about the far future isn't how different it will be but how much of the comfortingly familiar will remain. *

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