I’m always up to visit the works of well established authors in the genre. Most of the time, I end up reading their newer work because it’s more relevant. So when a book is touted as being the return of an award winning author, my ears perk up and my nose picks up the scent of new prey, UwU. Unfortunately, this time the trail led me astray, and I found myself wanting. The Shadows of Eternity, by Gregory Benford, is a squandering of potential that spends more time trying to find a point than make one.
The book is a series of stories that follows the life of Rachel, as she pursues her career as a librarian at a large SETI station on the moon. Here, massive amounts of data from far flung intelligent civilizations are compiled and given to AI personalities that serve as avatars for those civilizations. Rachel’s job is to communicate and bargain with these AIs to break their code and gain knowledge that is helpful to humanity. Over the course of decades Ruth solves several puzzles while dealing with several AI and the civilizations they are compiled from. However, she ends up being visited by a trailer from another star and becomes his primary envoy for the human race. And right now you are probably thinking, “How could a book with such a good premise go wrong?”
From a technical standpoint, the book isn’t bad nor is it good. Benford does a decent job of describing bigger technical things in easy to consume ways. The characters are bland but not the worst I’ve seen. They’re there to move the story along. Rachel is just a woman with something to prove, no matter how often we’re told she’s becoming a prodigy among librarians. The dialogue is clunky and expositional without revealing anything about the characters. Every detail is told. Even when Benford decides to show, it feels like he doesn’t trust the reader, and goes out of his way to highlight it by spelling it out again in dialogue.
The story itself is meandering, and the more interesting beginning stories just feel like stepping stones to the larger, less potent narrative. In the first story in the book, Rachel takes on one of the most enigmatic of these machines, having spent her life up until this point preparing to interact with it. She gets it to open up fairly quickly, and without much effort on her part. The book follows this sort of rhythm as Rachel runs into a wall with successive machines, eventually finding a way to break through. That is until she is visited by a traveler from another race, something that has never happened before in human history. And from there on, the rest of the book becomes an ongoing quest for bigger and greater technological advances hidden under the veneer of “building relationships.” It’s a boring slog that treads the burial grounds of science fiction.
Where the book really struggles for me is it’s sexual politics. Rachel makes headway with the first AI not through her own ingenuity and understanding, but because she is essentially raped by the machine. It sees it as a quid quo pro transaction that rewards her with status and humanity with astounding technology to stick around for a while longer. I had issues with this because it’s sort of just hand waved away without acknowledgment. It could have been a “at the mercy of Gods” moment, but it’s just a thing that happens. Rachel is also written like a golden age sci fi masculine hero, thinking often about the men she wants to have sex with, and occasionally has the sex, then walks away without emotional attachment. She even fantasizes about a sexual relationship with an alien species. Now this wouldn’t be bad if it truly felt liberating, intimate, or even a character flaw. Instead, it feels vindictive as if to say “see, women can be powerful and treat the world as a sex object too” vibe.
That’s not even to get into the sexless Noughts, a third gender “created” to be logical and non-emotional rational beings to serve the library. There are a lot of issues with them, but the most fascinating one is their complete lack of understanding of or willingness to understand sex and gender relations. I’m not saying that they should per se, but Benford spends little to no effort on why they would or wouldn’t, it’s just a fact of their nature. They view her rape as a necessary stepping stone and that she should just get over it, so she does. There are plenty of other situations in which they look down on Rachel and struggles she faces due to her sex and gender, but I’m going to avoid them to say it’s all just a mess.
The worst part about going through all of this book, is that none of this seems to serve a point. Benford seems fundamentally uninterested in the world he has created, forsaking my curiosity as the reader. The Shadows of Eternity doesn’t really end anywhere. It builds and builds to pivotal moments that are just another thing-a-ma-bob. Hell the book ends with Rachel looking back and being like “haters gonna hate,” and it’s just tiring. There is not a lot redeeming about this book other than the central premise of the library itself. I wish there was more of it, and it’s a shame that this is just a chronicle of ideas from the past, packaged to look like the future.
Rating: The Shadows of Eternity 3.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.