I reviewed in the Ocean of Night and Great Sky River in the series and felt that from these two reviews, the potential buyer can get most of what I think regarding the entire series. The whole series gets 5 stars but the flavor of the first book is very different from the other 5, with the last 4 having the most consistent story and the last book of the series bringing things full circle.
Great Sky River was the first book in the Galactic Center series I read back in 1987 when it was first released. I must say that Benford introduced me to the world of hard science fiction bringing to life and showing me landscapes of the center of the galaxy that before where flat and lifeless concepts buried in science books at the library.
Great Sky River is a tale of survival for a small group of humans who use tremendously advanced technology to survive in a location where humanity was perhaps not engineered to exist - the center of the galaxy. All throughout the series, there is this oppressing weight that the sky is falling (which it is) as a vast machine empire has crushed humanity everytime that humanity has started to stand up and become a threat/challenger to the machines but the machines are never able to eliminate humanity, some always remain - and this is the story of one group of people who literally fight for survival.
Albeit, Benford shows us a world where humanity as a race has peaked and which is is terminal decline at the relentless onslaught of an ancient and powerful machine civilization that controls most of the resource rich central part of the galaxy and its giant black hole.
*** Generic Review of Series ***
Collectively, this series of books written by Gregory Benford are known as the Galactic Center Saga. In order the books are:
1) In the Ocean of Night - Near Future
2) Across the Sea of Suns - Few hundred years from Now Future
--- Big Break in Time
3) Great Sky River - Distant Future
4) Tides of Light - Distant Future
5) Furious Gulf - Distant Future
6) Sailing Bright Eternity - Distant Future
The series is an early monument to epic science fiction on a grand scale across space and time. The prevailing concept of the books is that of how life in all its forms is resilient and how life adapts and evolves in response to different circumstances. The series also tells the story of how sometimes there is intense competition for resources and how sometimes groups seek to protect their resources. And finally, the series talks about how when things go out of balance - like human overexpansion - something happens in nature that brings back balance --- so in a large sense, the series is a cautionary tale although Benford skillfully makes out the Machine empire as the out of balance force that has to be brought back into normality but if you go back to the original book, it is humanity that is out of balance with earth.
Reading the entire series was a voyage of discovery for me. So, I first started reading the series with the third book titled, Great Sky River. The title, as best as I can remember, is a metaphorical label for the arms of the Milky Way galaxy which "flow" to the center of the galaxy. I found Great Sky River to be very entertaining fast paced, hard science fiction telling the story of survival by a few humans set against the backdrop of the wonders of the center of the galaxy in some far distant future. In this far future age, humanity civilization has already peaked and has begun a long decline and the heros struggle to survive in this far future world dominated by a vast machine civilization that dominates the central portion of the galaxy - a machine civilization that considers humans little more than a pest infestation (humans are cockroaches or rats, in this future world)....albeit the machines do consider humans interesting in some respects. So overall, a bit of a bleak world. Mind you, the machines consider interesting for a particular reason that I won't divulge for fear of being a spoiler but overall, the author plays with a whole plethora of concepts in a very intertaining fashion.
The last 3 books continue with the setting of Great Sky River (the center of the galaxy) and characters from Great Sky River. The books explore the human condition, the grandness of our universe, life, and a whole slew of other things. The last three books, particularly the last two, begin to tie in the first two books from the series and gives you the sense of the vastness of the galactic saga with the final book buttoning up everything in a rather interesting fashion.
After reading the last four series of the books and wanting more, I read that there were two precursor books. I read Across the Sea of Suns next which I found tremendously enjoyable. Across the Sea of Suns is the book which starts to set things in motion from a galactic center saga standpoint with an explanation of some core tenets for the following final four books in the series. Across the Sea of Suns is a mystery story first and foremost - which is kindof fun to read although a bit depressing because it is here that you first come to see the invisible machine empire and how powerless humanity is to do anything against them. Imagine, if some unseen alien force started sending meteors to pommel earth or send diseases our way etc - what could we do? Think of the movie Cloverfield, we would be virtually defenseless as a race against an attack like that.
Back to the first two books. In my mind, In the Ocean of Night, has a near future setting and gives me the impression of humanity being all alone in the Universe and entirely engrossed in our own petty little lives and there is talk of how we are ravaging our environment and how we are out of balance. The book plays out against the backdrop of the 1960s alternative lifestyles all embued with some of the behavior that has helped us survive as a species. I don't want to give away the story in the review so just bear in mind that this first installment of the series is very focused on the peoples, the cultures, and the society of the planet, including the interpersonal relationships of many characters. Intertwined into the book, you get the science fiction backdrop that we are not alone and you get some glimpses of a broader world.
So the prevaling theme is that of balance, the persistence of life, competition - all set against the backdrop of hard science fiction that becomes harder as you delve deeper into the series. Never as hard as Stephen Baxter who I think is phenomenal but hard science fiction nontheless.
If you don't like slow social science fiction, you might want to skip In the Ocean of Night and go straight to Across the Sea of Suns. If you want the precursor material to Great Sky River without the interhuman drama, you can read the short story on the 1972 issue of "IF" magazine - if you can find it. If you just want the fun and excitement of a fast paced hard sci fi series, start with Great Sky River and take it from there.
Overall, In the Ocean of Night is required reading but just bear in mind that its richer from a character development standpoint and not true hard sci fi like most of the rest of the series.
Hope this helps you navigate the Galactic Center Saga - I really enjoyed the entire series when I was growing up.