Beyond Infinity is a curious mix of old and new.
In several specific chapters it struck me as not only reminiscent of several Arthur C. Clarke works, but also evocative of older and less cerebral earthlings-struggling-to-comprehend-and-survive-a-strange-environment tales (Farmer’s “World of Tiers” Burroughs homages, in particular). But it’s also firmly in the post-Singularity sub-genre of science fiction, and informed by recent thoughts about space-time geometries, among other things.
On one level it’s the story of Cley, a young woman in the far distant future who may be the last “original” human (or at least the closest to homo sapiens) and her struggles to escape a powerful (but helpfully imprecise) entity bent on her destruction. But it’s also a rumination on how intelligence might differ, on the breadth and voracity of life, and on the value of the human spirit — and humanity itself — in a vast and indifferent-seeming cosmos.
It worked least well for me when Cley is among the “Supra” humans. The Supras intelligence supposedly outstrips ours, their lifespans are measured in centuries, and their physiologies are substantially different — they’ve dispensed, for instance, with external genitalia. But Benford’s portrayal of their society seems almost parochial, with unquestioned assumptions of heterosexual orientation, serial monogamy, and sexual jealousy as a motivating factor. When one of them courts Cley, the dynamic is all-too familiar from Woody Allen movies. (To be fair, Supra society is not Benford’s primary focus: our viewpoint character, Cley, looks in on them as an outsider; maybe some of the assumptions about the rules of that society are Cley’s as much as Benford’s. And I’m glad Benford doesn’t dwell on them too much; they suffer from the frequent problem of portraying supposedly hyperintelligent beings: they seem capricious and supercilious at best, emotionally retarded at worst.)
I liked the book better after Cley and her companion, Seeker After Patterns, a hyper-evolved and not-at-all-played-for-laughs distant descendant of raccoons, take their leave of the Supras. But the novel also becomes curiously hermetic at that point; Cley and Seeker talk to each other, but not much to others. Still, I enjoyed some of Benford’s descriptions of space-borne life. And Seeker is an interesting character, among the more convincingly rendered non-human intelligences I can recall. (And success in this portrayal is critical to Benford’s overarching thematic goal of exploring the diversity of intelligence.)
I found the novels’s resolution less than satisfying. There’s an element of deux ex machina, which, although the groundwork for it is well laid, still seemed a bit pat. But there’s a lot to admire about Beyond Infinity; it was certainly thought-provoking and I suspect it will be memorable as well.
needs more demons? it’s a bit hard for me to distinguish between “flaws” and things are just not to my taste.
* when I read the afterword I learned that Beyond Infinity is actually an expansion and reworking of an earlier sequel to a Clarke book.