Benford is one of the SF greats and Great Sky River one of his great books. As an act of imagination it’s a triumph, as a piece of storytelling and writing it is by turns soaring, lyrical, and poetic. And sometimes it falls a bit flat on its face. That’s OK because in the main Great Sky River works very well and the failings are because Benford seems to be pushing his considerable talents as a writer to the limit – and those sorts of failings you can easily forgive.
So sometimes he over-indulges himself with explanation, and sometimes he doesn’t quite break free of the preconceptions of his own era. As a result the narrative can meander or jerk in a few places. On the other hand his views of machine intelligence, its struggle and failure to understand organic life and the catastrophic consequences that result, all told through the story and characters of this bold novel, are as thoughtful and profound as anything you’ll find in fiction.
It’s his gifts as a writer, his empathy with the human condition and universe-building that make me think of him as a kind of Ian Banks of his era. Except in Benford’s universe humanity lives in no perfect culture. The glory days have long gone, mankind is flat on its face and struggling to rise again. Still bold and brave, still striving to understand, broken, bloody, and in its beaten and bested way still magnificent.