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Beyond Infinity
by Gregory Benford

Reviewed by
Michael Dirda

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Science fiction writers tend to be divided into two sorts: the soft and the hard. In a loose sense, the first are primarily interested in “fiction”; the second in “science.” Soft science fiction tends to be literary, artistically experimental, and vague about technology; hard science fiction uses possible developments in, say, physics or chemistry, to drive a plot and generate action.

Soft science fiction writers like to regard themselves as artists; hard science fiction writers think of their work as instructive entertainment: On the one hand, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, and Ursula Le Guin, on the other, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford.

Of course, the membrane between these two subgenres is fairly porous. Robert Heinlein, for instance, could be slotted into either camp. But there’s no doubt that Beyond Infinity is very hard science fiction indeed. Gregory Benford works as a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, and his latest novel—of some 20 altogether, among them the classic Timescape—takes us far into the future to show us genetically altered humans and animals forced to confront a malign force from beyond our galaxy.

Readers primarily interested in genetic research will be somewhat disappointed, however, that Beyond Infinity fairly quickly shifts its focus away from biology to cosmology.

The story follows Cley, who is an Original, an ur-Human, and who lives with her people in pastoral simplicity. Imagine a flower-child in a kind of hippie commune or extended hunter-gatherer clan. But Cley is spiritually restless, as well as deeply attracted to the Supras, who are—as their name suggests—genetically enhanced: They possess telepathic powers, live for centuries, run the world.

Yet the Supras themselves are divided into sub-groups: Esthetes, for instance, prefer to work underground in special libraries. Moreover, on this future Earth, some animals can be “semisentient” with rudimentary speech, and raccoon-like beasts called procions possess unlikely mental powers.

Benford creates Cley’s strange world in prose that is quick-moving, concise, didactic, and often humorous or aphoristic. “The best definition of intelligence is the ability to learn not from your mistakes but from others’.” Some readers may relish Benford’s humor more than I do, though it’s hard not to smile at Cley’s description of sex: “There was to the entire act, up close, the quality of being attacked by a giant, remorseless snail. The whole arrangement seemed on the face of it unlikely, a temporary design that had gotten legislated into concrete.”

Those two sentences also hint at Benford’s limitations: He presents original ideas or images, but his diction can be commonplace, sometimes risking bathos in attempts to be witty (“A fetching smile. She felt herself wrapping voluntarily around his augmented, extra-sized finger”). On the other hand, “Darwinnowing” is a rather neat reformulation for survival of the fittest.

Cley embarks on a love affair with a Supra, and is happy—until the attack. “Smart” lightning bolts descend from the skies and vaporize virtually all the Originals right down to their DNA. Cley survives, with the help of a wise, Yoda-like procion named Seeker After Patterns, and discovers that she is the last Ur-Human left alive. A group of Supras adopts her, as they seek to figure out the purpose and nature of the unknown enemy. Gradually, we learn it is an entity called the Malign that has managed to escape from its imprisonment near a black hole.

Any longtime reader of science fiction will guess by this point that Cley holds the key to defeating the Malign. Indeed, her name suggests this: Think of the pronunciation of clef, the French word for key. But could she also be the clay by which mankind will make some further evolutionary leap?

As Beyond Infinity proceeds, Cley and Seeker find themselves caught up a series of adventures—they are “morphed” into another dimension, escape, then hide from the smart lightning in a hollowed-out tree that is harvested up into space by a Pinwheel, and eventually find themselves inhabiting an organic spacecraft-planetoid called Leviathan.

Throughout these sometimes Alice-in-Spaceland-like chapters, Benford tosses out speculations about four-dimensional planes, uses his characters to discuss philosophical, moral and scientific questions (sometimes quoting observations that readers may recognize as original with Orwell, John Maynard Keynes, the Rolling Stones and others), describes the workings of a hive-mind, and shows us plants with locomotive powers. But above all, he slowly builds up a sense of unimaginably powerful forces in combat, generating the kind of grand cosmic vision that Olaf Stapledon made famous in Last and First Men and Star Maker.

Though the novel moves swiftly and is nothing if not chockablock with ideas, some readers will shudder at sentences like “My phylum believes that the Malign wants to hasten the era when another universe, on another brane, collides with ours.” All in all, Benford himself dazzles with his non-stop scientific extrapolations, but his actual story could have appeared in a 1940s issue of Astounding: “The Quickening led them to the Singular, beyond the grasp of the Malign.”

Still, Beyond Infinity is rich with daring ideas—at one point Cley and Procion are part of the sexual intercourse between two gigantic entities—and fans of hard, indeed adamantine, science fiction will find much here to think over, argue with, and dream about.

Michael Dirda, a longtime writer for The Washington Post Book World, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and the forthcoming collection of critical pieces, Bound to Please

Gregory Benford, Beyond Infinity. Warner Books, New York, 2004.

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