by Gregory Benford
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication Date: October 19, 2021
Genres: Science Fiction
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Shadows of Eternity
is legendary author Gregory Benford’s return to interstellar science fiction as a discovery within the SETI library on the moon turns out to be deadly.
Shadows of Eternity is a novel set two centuries from now. Humanity has established a SETI library on the moon to decipher and interpret the many messages from alien societies we have discovered. The most intriguing messages are from complete artificial intelligences.
Ruth, a beginner Librarian, must talk to alien minds—who have aggressive agendas of their own. She opens doors into strangeness beyond imagination—and in her quest for understanding nearly gets killed doing it.
Gregory Benford is one of science fiction’s iconic writers, having been nominated for four Hugo Awards and twelve Nebula Awards. Shadows of Eternity marks Gregory Benford’s return to the sweeping galactic science fiction that readers have been waiting for.
It should be obvious by now that while I’m very much into science fiction, I’m more a space opera person than hard scifi. Gadgets and gizmos are cool, but I care mostly about the characters. Unfortunately, despite the blurb (a SETI library on the moon?!?) this book is the exact opposite of what I like.
The Library on the Moon is a collection of alien AIs, referred to as Minds, and Messages, SETI communications. Ruth, newly arrived from Earth, wins a place training to become one of the Librarians responsible for interpreting those alien messages. Over the course of a series of loosely interconnected stories, Ruth explores the edges of alien intelligence – and the universe.
Let’s just start out with my main issue. Ruth is utterly boring and suffers from the worst sort of man-writing-woman cringiness. I should’ve been prepared for this, as very early on she waxes nostalgic about reading Bradbury (ok) and Heinlein, which, oh boy, yeah, that certainly puts into perspective where this particular portrayal of women is coming from. She has a roommate/friend who is basically a caricature of drunk party girl, and a few reoccurring flings. Which, I mean, get it, girl, but maybe you shouldn’t bone the lawyer who’s there to basically pressgang you? There’s frequent references to putting off a serious relationship (and children) until her career is more established (in the future, periods can be slowed down to extend fertility). Perfectly reasonable, except it’s repeated, almost word for word, several times over the course of the book. And the one time she gets her period in the book, she acts irrationally and gets weirdly emotional. I have literally no idea what purpose that section served, except that perhaps it was meant as humor. If so, it failed for me.
“The Library had shown that human speech, with its linear meanings and weakly linked concepts, was simple, utilitarian, and typical of younger minds along the evolutionary path. So Messages could be more like experiences than signals.”
The worst was a section where Ruth is raped by one of the Minds. Communicating with the Minds involves full immersion in a pod so that they can be experienced. Verbal or written communication, apparently, is terribly inefficient and very backwards. The Mind initially floats the idea of having sex with her in return for some scientific information that will literally save Earth, which she quickly shuts down, but the next time they meet, it rapes her. Her bosses at the Library brush off it off, and the Mind itself gaslights her (“well, I wouldn’t have done it if part of you didn’t want it” basically). And that’s it. It happens, Ruth is obviously traumatized for a few pages, and then the story just moves on. And that’s not even going into the sexless Noughts, who prefer nonbinary pronouns and who Ruth and other characters repeatedly misgender as male.
“Immersed in a Message, do less. In gliding slowness you may glimpse the seeds of eternity.”
So what’s good about it? The whole structure of the library and its purpose – that some SETI messages are alien AIs, that humans can train themselves to communicate with them – was absolutely fascinating. There’s also some bits about wormholes and math concepts that seemed interesting but were, frankly, incomprehensible to me. There are occasional pops of humor (Ruth’s categorization of the various sorts of messages has stuck with me), though most of it fell flat.
Overall, unless all you’re looking for are some cool scifi concepts and don’t care about all that pesky characterization, I don’t recommend this book.