Review – Across the Sea of Suns by Gregory Benford

In genre parlance, “hard” science fiction stories are based in plausible, hypothetical science. The rules of physics are generally followed. Space travel is slow and full of obstacles. Alien life blossoms in rigorously detailed ecological systems. Hard SF extrapolates future technologies from the universe as we currently understand it and details the way they might work at length.

In general, I find hard science fiction incredibly difficult.

Taking place concurrently in 2056 and 2061, Across the Sea of Suns follows the crew of the Lancer as they investigate signs of intelligent life around distant stars, and the invasion of Earth by strange sea-based life forms. Over the course of the novel, Benford explores the physiology of three radically different alien species, both deliberately and inadvertently malign. There are some human conflicts as well, from the threat of nuclear extinction to a love triangle complicated by easily accessible sex-change technology, but the aliens are the primary draw.

The slow path to understanding each alien intelligence is ultimately a rewarding read. But I can’t stress enough that Benford’s writing style is incredibly dense. From page one, descriptions of action are truncated by experimental dashes. Long, overlapping conversations are common, broken up like free verse poetry or presented in single paragraphs more than two pages long. Benford does an admirable job conveying the frustration of communication between the seaborne Skimmers and their chosen human oracle, but I often felt just as exhausted trying to parse the conversations between humans speaking to each other in English.

I can’t say that I found reading Across the Sea of Suns a pleasant experience. I like a challenge now and then, but for me, keeping track of hypothetical scientific advances and vaguely described human ciphers is hard enough. Benford’s approach to the narrative struck me as an unnecessary artifice, an extra layer of elitism daring the reader to return the book unread. It would be unfair to say that this was the intent, but if this was a slice of life novel about a man returning home to his family’s farm in the midwest, I would have taken one look at the way the dialogue was laid out and dismissed it as over-workshopped, grad school Creative Writing level pretension.

But it did have scary aliens, so Across the Sea of Suns gets a pass.

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