In the Ocean of Night by Gregory Benford (1972)
I want to like Mr. Benford’s books. I really do. He’s one of the SF Masters, up there with Asimov, Clarke, and Norton, and he’s a scientist, too. But each time I try to delve into one of his hard SF books, he goes off onto a tangent (in this case, a metaphysical one). I guess it worked for Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 when the science got so dense that we saw God, but this book is not 2001.
This book is the story of Nigel Walmsly who has three separate encounters with alien spacecraft during a span of two decades. Initially, he’s a NASA astronaut exploring a comet headed for India. When he discovers it’s really an alien spaceship, he disobeys orders to destroy it to collect data from inside the ship. He does eventually blow it up, but his career is over.
Until, ten years later, he discovers a snark, an astral phenomenon headed for Earth. Yes, it’s another alien craft, approaching Earth cautiously on an artificial trajectory. Unfortunately, while Nigel is figuring all this out, his girlfriend has lupus and has joined the New Sons religion. There’s an unexpected sex scene with Nigel, his girlfriend, and her girlfriend with lots of acrobatics (he was an astronaut and apparently very virile), but nothing he can do besides have a telltale implanted to inform him of his girlfriend’s condition.
The snark makes use of this implant when Nigel’s girlfriend dies (and is resurrected briefly by the snark) and communicates directly with Nigel to discover what it can about humans. According to the snark, only intelligent machines survive in the galaxy. Based on his prior experience, Nigel is sent back out into space with a nuclear bomb to discover what the snark wants and blow it up if it could be a threat.
Nigel warns the snark and it escapes, warning him that something is coming. He thinks he knows what it is when a young woman on the moon discovers yet another alien ship, this one crashed. Using blackmail this time, Nigel gets involved and helps the young woman examine the craft until the New Sons attack them. Oh, and Nigel and the young woman share his cabin because of the virility thing.
Then, the story loses all cohesion. Nigel is absorbed by the alien craft when his young friend accidentally turns on some controls, and suddenly they are on Earth helping a friend return an alien artifact to some singing Sasquatch. Apparently, early alien visitors helped man evolve and befriended Sasquatch. I totally lost the point. Solar systems in line with ours are blinking out and the friendly aliens want to help.
Maybe someone else can explain it to me. Like 2001, I’m still waiting for a definitive answer.