SCI FICTION, May 19, 2004

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

"The First Commandment" by Gregory Benford

"The First Commandment" by Gregory Benford delves into the costs we, as a species, have accrued upon Earth in the course of our advancement. Through technological, agricultural, and industrial growth, we have changed the face of our planet–turning lush forests into cultivated plains, river ways to deserts, wildernesses to wastelands–and sent countless species into extinction, undoubtedly many without even the courtesy of noting their existence before wiping them irrevocably out.

While the idea of molding Earth to suit our desires, even terraforming another planet, is not a new one in science fiction, Benford succeeds in capturing the imagination as he describes futuristic manmade mountains that rival anything natural in beauty and majesty.  And therein lies the conflict of "The First Commandment."  Can humanity improve on nature?  Can we use our large brains and clever technologies to fix the ravages we've wrought without inflicting more damage on our  long-suffering planet? Should we try?

Benford's main character, Locke, is a biologist tasked with the duty of collecting and categorizing native flora, fauna, and insect life before their habitats are permanently transformed–for good or evil– by progress.  It is a magnificent goal, a planet-wide census of life. It is also a bone thrown to the environmentalists, a hope that any species sent into extinction might one day be revived via this collected sample–not so much a futuristic Noah's Ark as a global cryogenic suspension project. As Locke is on the cusp of completing her grand undertaking, a religious zealot interferes,  spouting apocalyptic warnings of cosmic retribution from a vengeful god.

Benford's prose is unadorned but poignant.  He tells a good tale, with characters that are real and sympathetic.  But while I applaud his deft wordsmithing, I found the religious portions of "The First Commandment" unsatisfying. Dogmatic indignation is seemly inevitable whenever scientific innovation is realized, so much so that this reader finds it to be a tiresome subject matter, bordering on the cliché.  Furthermore, the concept of a merciless god, miffed with humanity for all the species we have sent to oblivion, seems implausible when one takes into account the dizzying number of species that have already walked the path to extinction in the "natural" scheme of things, before we ever became players on the scene. Was their extinction a part of His holy plan, and yet the ones humanity saw to not? 

Generally, the "God is mad at us" plotline detracted from the solemnity and scope of the more notable issues–both scientific and ethical–that are contained in "The First Commandment." It felt out of place in an otherwise thoughtful narrative.