Gregory Benford

Gregory Benford

by George Slusser

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079801
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/30/2014
Series: Modern Masters of Science Fiction Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

George Slusser is a professor of comparative literature and the curator of the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Literature at the University of California, Riverside. His many books include Science Fiction:  Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy.

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By George Slusser


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03822-8


GREGORY BENFORD The Scientist as Writer

Throughout his long career as science fiction writer, Gregory Benford has remained steadfast in his claim that science is at the center both of the twentieth century and of the form of literature he sees as its central mode of expression. What else should SF deal with than the impact of scientific ideas and discoveries on society and the individual? Remarks he made to physics graduate students at UCSD in 1985 are typical: "Science is the mainspring of this century. Historians will call this the century of science ... because it is where it became obvious that the big driving term in the equation of society is science." Clearly he sees these remarks to be valid for the twenty-first century as well, as he chose to reprint them verbatim in 2005. This is a restatement of Isaac Asimov's famous definition of "social science fiction" as the literature that deals with the impact of scientific and technological advancement on human beings. Benford, however, has a deeper historical sense of this process. He realizes that this impact did not begin just in the twentieth century. In his fiction and nonfiction he reveals a deep understanding of the philosophical currents born, as early as the Western seventeenth century, from the impact of scientific discovery on conventional worldviews. This engenders profound changes in the way—if we play by the new rules of science—in which we see the world. The literature that responds to these changing worldviews must of necessity be an experimental one, perhaps the only really experimental form of literature modern mankind has. Science has radically altered conventional ways of seeing space, time, and mankind's relation to the physical world; so must it do for narrative forms as well. Benford imagines physical environments in which human activity becomes radically problematic, if not unthinkable, and thus unnarratable in terms of conventional fictional structures, governed by a Newtonian stability. His writing faces technical challenges other writers, even many SF writers, habitually avoid. This is because he insists on writing "with the net up," strictly adhering to the laws of physics rather than conveniently "suspending disbelief." He is, in perhaps all the history of science fiction, the one writer who most successfully synthesizes the often-contradictory demands of science and fiction. Common wisdom today tends to oppose science and literature as having opposite, even antagonistic, goals. This makes Benford's synthesis all the more interesting. The problems he wrestles with as writer, given his sense of the ideas and world models that issue from scientific inquiry, are fundamentally philosophical rather than social. His work is philosophical fiction of the highest order.


Benford is extremely well read in the history of science, and he often reveals his sources. In many other instances, however, it is clear that he is dealing with concepts whose basic source is unmentioned but which remain underlying problems for science today. As well, Benford is one of the rare writers who seeks to anchor the origins of science fiction in the origins of scientific thought. Science fiction has taken a long time to define itself, to gain a clear sense of its generic identity. Benford sees this problem, historically, as having much to do with the difficult relation between the two terms that have come to describe it: science and fiction. Both terms, as we know them today, came into being in the seventeenth century. The new methods and vision of the scientific revolution were codified in the work of thinkers and writers like Descartes and Pascal. In their work, the vision of the new science challenges the conventional worldviews—religious and moral—that were, and remain, deeply imbedded in human fictions and stories. The works of a Pascal are not science fiction as we know it. But they do offer mini-narratives that suggest the possibility of a literary form that deals with Asimov's impact of scientific and technological advancement on human beings. The idea is profoundly simple. But it took a long time in Western literary history for this definition to yield a clearly identifiable literary genre. Part of the problem involves the nature of the scientific method, which is experimental, tentative, and open-ended by nature. Science's findings increasingly contradict the classical human-centered worldview. Science then, for Benford, is the scientific method. Applying this to human situations is the defining element of a "science fiction." His abiding concern, over his long career, has been to bring science and fiction into a creative, ever-evolving dialogue. True to the objective method of science, the consistent purpose of his fiction has been to explain (and not simply to justify) the ways of an increasingly alien nature to man.

Benford's task goes far beyond just bridging a "two-cultures gap." In English culture the antipathy between science and the conventional worldview of fiction goes back as far as Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman, in the age of alchemy. We see it in the punishment of scientist-overreachers from Dr. Faustus to Victor Frankenstein. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, science and fiction (at least in England) seem to follow alternate paths, until technology and the shock of evolutionary theory forced a science-born worldview—with the force of Wells's Martians invading Earth—on a literary culture now seen to be dying. Matthew Arnold, in his speech "Science and Literature" (1883), delivered to an American audience, sees scientific materialism triumphant. Its note of defeat, however, was quickly challenged by critics like F. R. Leavis, whose "great tradition" hearkens back to Dr. Johnson and his defense of a literature based on cultural conservatism and stylistic and formal elegance. In the American twentieth century, this same vision was adopted by the cultural and academic establishment, associated with the Ivy League East Coast. Given this, it is no accident that American science fiction emerged in very different geographical and cultural regions—the immigrant backroom New York of Asimov's Futurians; the Midwest of writers like Philip Jose Farmer, Wilson Tucker, Clifford Simak, not to mention Bradbury and Heinlein; the West Coast of Philip K. Dick's L.A. and Stan Robinson's Pacific Shore. Finally, there is Benford's Deep South. Science fiction in the United States grew up in these ghettos, rejected by critics and academics alike. But in the same way Arthurian legends captivated the medieval mind, the feats of science and technology are today the stuff of popular legend, generating hundreds of thousands of space epics and new and parallel worlds. Working with this popular material of wonder, science fiction became the dominant cultural, if not literary, form of the second half of the twentieth century. The problem here is science driven, and Arnold's proposition was an either-or one—the future of science or the past of humanism. Benford's science fiction, on the other hand, follows Pascal in confronting mankind's humanist, and religious, past with the challenges of science's future. He moves beyond Pascal, however, in considering the possibility of mankind's surviving and changing in that future. In the midst of theories of the universe in which we seem to take no part, he asks: Can some part of us, something "human," remain and evolve in even the strangest of futures, worlds beyond Pascal's imagining? If this question seems to lurk beneath every Star Trek episode, it is best examined by a scientist-writer like Benford, who possesses sufficient scientific knowledge of what this alien future might be like to speculate how something human might fit into it.

Benford frequently describes his creative activity as working with a scientific paper on one side of his desk, and a science fiction story (or novel) on the other. This lets him move back and forth, negotiating between the strictures of scientific method and the freedom of fictional speculation, allowing the "what if" to resonate with the "must be." The scientist's task is to state the cold equations of nature; the task of the speculative scientist-writer is to seek, and hopefully affirm, the role of organic (and perhaps human) life in science's cold future. In the epigraph to his novel Across the Sea of Suns, Benford lets poet Wallace Stevens state mankind's science-fictional strength: "After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends." The use of these lines (from "The Well-Dressed Man with a Beard") is characteristic of Benford's desire to mediate between conventional and new worlds. They are the opening lines of a poem that subsequently retreats into private enigma. But for Benford these lines become a call to action. They express the need for mankind to spread its "yes" throughout the mysteries of the cosmos.

Benford is usually classified as a "hard" science fiction writer. This designation, however, pigeonholes his work, places it in unfair opposition to the antiwar, antitechnology ideology of post-Vietnam found in other of his "New Wave" contemporaries. To Ursula Le Guin, for example, the designation "hard" means male domination via technology and science. These are the forces responsible for machines, aggression, destruction of nature; their soft opposite is return to "community," by which she means Indian and other tribal cultures. For her, the result of Benford's hard science is egomania, war, conquest—all characteristics of the "male" culture of technology and the aggressive, Cartesian "self." But this simplistic division misses the point that science is first and foremost a method of knowing, a particular type of cognitive activity. When Benford says "yes" to an expanding future for mankind, and for organic life in general, he demands that we seek to understand the physical forces that might govern that future. For him, this is the fundamental requirement for a science fiction. It must obey a material imperative that requires we take literally, as physical facts, any and all events that happen in its science-fictional world, future or otherwise. If mankind would have some aspect of its being survive in this future, this must be done on nature's terms; there is no deus ex machina, nor the logical and mathematical sleight of hand of Pascal's thinking reed, claiming to preserve the role of human reason at the center of physical infinities whose very existence deny any such centrality. For Benford, "hardness" means refusal of all such wishful thinking, however scientific it appears to be.

The term "hard science fiction" is often associated with interplanetary or cosmic engineering feats. Paradigmatic examples are Arthur C. Clarke's terraforming in The Sands of Mars and Larry Niven's artificial planet Ringworld. The idea behind both is to build an environment according to the laws of physics, and to "get it right." Niven's mode of creation is to present a working model to an audience of engineers and scientists and then refine it as details of its functioning are examined and corrected. Fans often place Benford's works at the far creative end of this cosmic engineering spectrum. For example, the July 31, 2009, entry on the blog "Fred's Place" (freds-ramblings marvels at Benford's conversion of cosmic strings into a massive planet-mining machine in the novel Tides of Light. It is clear, however, that Benford, although past master at this sort of cosmic engineering, is seeking to create in the vast reaches of spacetime an "ecology" in the original sense of this word—the search for a "home" or suitable habitat for some possibly or impossibly evolved form of humanity.

Benford's "exo-engineering" derives from the tradition of Larry Niven, and of Hal Clement's planet Mesklin and its Mesklinites in Mission of Gravity. Its reach is even vaster. But its purpose is quite different. It is closer to Clarke in its insistence on placing the human element at the center of its engineered alien futures, always exploring the link, however tenuous, that ties us to "it." In this sense, it is instructive to compare Benford's work with a novel that combines unsurpassed environment building with skillful engineering of a means of communication between humans and beings adapted to a physically alien environment: Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg. Forward both creates a plausible life form adapted to the extreme physical conditions of a neutron star, and works out a way for his "Cheela" to interface with human beings despite their incredibly accelerated chemical processes and infinitesimally short duration of their individual lives. The critic John Clute hailed this work as "a romance of science." This perhaps is a backhanded compliment for a novel whose characters are little more than counters. Forward, in fact, initially saw his role in this project more as scientific consultant than as writer. He was simply to design this world, and Niven or Pournelle were to write its story. They had other commitments, however, and Forward (with much guidance from his editor) went on to write the novel.

Like Benford, Forward is a professional scientist. But unlike Benford, Forward sees the whole goal of writing SF as getting the science right. He describes Dragon's Egg as "a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel." In his essay "When Science Writes the Fiction," he describes his writing method: "I don't even write science fiction. I just write a scientific paper about some strange place—and by the time I have the science correct—the science has written the fiction." Forward openly mocks "human-bound stories." He makes statements like "humans don't count, intelligence does," which promise bold, extrapolative reach beyond the anthropocentric worldview of conventional fiction. But he does not deliver on this promise. As it turns out, the superior aliens of Dragon's Egg worship the orbiting human ship as if it were a cargo-cult god. Humans are scientifically inferior to the Cheela. But they are physically larger, and their hosts, despite their scientific superiority, immediately agree to share their technology with humans. The scenario has not changed since Murray Leinster's benchmark story "First Contact." Benford's fictional worlds easily rival Forward's in the sophisticated modeling of scientifically plausible aliens. But Benford does not "do science" for science's sake, nor do his aliens display crude anthropocentrism once the veil of science is lifted. His fiction is anthropocentric only in the sense that the nature and limits of human experience is its abiding theme, and that its narrative voice is necessarily human. Unlike Forward, Benford is both a scientist and a writer. As such, his science fiction pushes the envelope of human experience, as the stuff of fiction, into realms of increasing scientific wonder. He extrapolates alien beings and worlds from cutting-edge discoveries in astronomy, physics, and biology. He does so, however, not to display his theoretical ingenuity but to test the limits of mankind's capacity to relate to, and possibly communicate with, uniquely alien life forms. If science "writes the fiction" here, it is only to the degree that scientific exploration opens an ever-expanding field of human endeavor, full of strange beings and physical forces beyond human capacity and perhaps comprehension. If Forward's human characters lack depth and believability, Benford's protagonists (necessarily human because his stories are all about humans moving "against infinity") are strong, complex presences. The use of such figures allows fiction, in turn, to rewrite the science, insofar as their actions redefine possible human roles and purpose amidst a landscape of physical and evolutionary wonder.

Benford's evolving sense of mankind's place in the material universe owes an acknowledged debt to philosophically inclined writers from Pascal to Robert A. Heinlein. From Pascal, he derives the terror of infinity. Western culture has never recovered from this sense of mankind's nothingness in contrast to the infinitely expanding vistas of modern physics. Here, things we thought permanent, such as matter, may also have their end, opening new vistas on infinite terror and mystery. Benford refers frequently to Pascal. He also mentions early evolutionist thinkers and writers, such as Olaf Stapledon and J. D. Bernal. He shares with them the idea that, ultimately, it is neither human reason nor Forward's "intelligence" that "counts," but sentience and Life in general. Thus he imagines, and chronicles, the struggle across universes and galaxies, not just between sentient and nonsentient beings, but between various upward-striving forms of sentience: organic, mechanical, silicon clay, and possibly beyond. But, however much these entities evolve and acquire intelligence, what seems to lack in all of them, for Benford, is the "human element," by which he means the dynamism and uncertainty generated by human beings with their vast ambitions and short life spans. Benford shares this vision with the benchmark writer of SF's Golden Age, Robert Heinlein. As with Heinlein's humans, Benford's explorers spread across vast reaches of spacetime. Yet they remain ever conscious of the necessity to create a home, a place where they can protect their original biology and identity, where they resist the possibility (and the temptation) of becoming something nonhuman.


Excerpted from GREGORY BENFORD by George Slusser. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Gregory Benford: The Scientist as Writer 5

Chapter 2 Benford in His Own Words: Toward a Craft of Science Fiction 20

Chapter 3 Fictional Directions: The Makings of a Scientist-Writer 45

Chapter 4 Galactic Center One: Benford's Space Epic 77

Chapter 5 Galactic Center Two: Nigel Walmsley's Space Odyssey 87

Chapter 6 To the Galactic Center: From Earth to Eternity 113

Chapter 7 The Science Fiction Novel of Manners 139

Chapter 8 Benford's Short Fiction 154

Conclusion 173

Interview with Gregory Benford 177

A Gregory Benford Bibliography 185

Notes 187

Index 191

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