A REVIEW OF MY ‘DEEP TIME’

Published by Gregory Benford on October 7th, 2016

David Mattison

British Columbia Archives

 

Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia

GREGORY BENFORD. New York: Avon Books, 01999 (cloth); Harper Collins, 02000 (paper). 225 p. ISBN 0-380-97537-8 (cloth); 0-380-79346-6 (paper).1

 

For archivists who believe they make it last longer, physicist and science-fiction author Gregory Benford’s book will come as a shock. Benford thinks in time scales vastly larger than we mortal archivists dare dream.

 

We do our best from one generation to the next to preserve records. We hope that technology will continue to salvage our mistakes and allow us to migrate new forms of records into the future. But what if there is no room for error? What if life itself, especially life in a distant future, depended on decisions made today, decisions with unforeseen consequences and costs? These are the very questions with which archivists, especially appraisal archivists, are familiar as they decide the fate of records entrusted to their care.

 

Benford’s book examines four critical “deep time” issues in which humanity, consciously or not, communicates to the future: nuclear waste disposal, outer space probe messages, species extinction and preservation, and environmental degradation and restoration. The backbone of Benford’s arguments is that humanity needs to adopt a deep time outlook; in other words, we all need to be more like archivists and other preservation specialists. Benford, however, does not place much stock in the present work of archivists or libraries to keep their cultural treasures safe. The words “archives” and “archivists” do not appear in the index but are briefly mentioned on page sixty-one. Libraries fare little better with only the Library of Congress and the Vatican Library being singled out. He notes in his introduction (p. 15) that “no libraries survived antiquity.” He mentions cuneiform tablets, not as examples of archival records, but as one of the earliest and most durable forms of dead media. Benford

casts serious doubt on the stability and long-term survival of electronic

records. Oversimplifying, he writes, “Our modern digital libraries are more vulnerable than monastic scrolls were to a barbarian’s torch; a power surge and all is lost” (p. 61).

 

Benford’s introduction, “From Here to Eternity,” contains many implicit

and a few explicit references to archives. For archivists, the introduction and the first chapter, which comprise nearly half the book, are the most important and what this review concentrates on. None of his examples of archival preservation are complimentary to the profession, and he is right, in the sense that on the scale of his book, despite the public perception of archives as eternal, our efforts as records custodians are sometimes thwarted by activities beyond our control, particularly unforeseen acts of social upheaval and natural disasters.

 

1 All quotations in this review are from the paperback edition, and all Web sites cited were last visited on 31 January 2002.

 

Many important archives are also in vulnerable geographic sites – underground or below sea level being a perennial favourite – which significantly increase the risk to non-digital records. We continue to plan for disasters which could be mitigated by preservation duplication and dispersal of records. Interestingly enough, one strategy for digital preservation known as LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe; http://lockss.stanford.edu/) takes as its model “the old idea of preventing loss by multiplying copies” at the local level. How much is this technique being used for ensuring the survival of unique, archival, non-digital records? For example, how many archives have complete backups

of their microfilm negatives in a distant geographic location?

 

What struck me about this work, especially the introduction, was the number of times Benford seemed to be addressing the two core concerns of archives: a “deep time outlook” (long-term preservation) and “deep time messages” (transmission of meaning in records). For Benford and others, such as Daniel Hillis, Stewart Brand, and friends of the Long Now Foundation (http://www.longnow.org), deep time is 10,000 years, roughly twice the age of our earliest known historic date (according to Benford, this is 4241 BC). The Long Now Foundation, which Benford cites as a concrete example of deep time thinking, established a Long Mail project “to better understand how to archive digital data for the long term (centuries) … a long term E-mail archive” (http://epoch.longnow.org/ely/intro.html). Besides this project and the 10,000 Year Clock (see the publication dates of Benford’s book above for the simple philosophy behind the clock), the Long Now Foundation’s other significant project is the Rosetta Disk Project (http://www.rosettaproject.org/). Attempting to establish a permanent archive of 1,000 languages in different media, the project will be distributing the analog-encoded disk free to communities or individuals using the LOCKSS principle.

 

Benford shines the critical spotlight on archives a little too harshly and

unfairly. He appears not to have done his homework and seems unaware of various international, national, and local efforts to resolve what the Inter-PARES Project identifies as “the permanent preservation of authentic records created in electronic systems” (quoted from its Web site start page, http://www.interpares.org). Benford cites several cases in which attempts by ancient civilizations to immortalize their cultures have failed. Their most successful efforts come down to us in stone or clay. Yet the durability of these media leaves them vulnerable to vandals, recyclers, and natural forces. Even should the medium survive into the distant future, will it contain a message? Benford describes two methods by which messages survive: one he calls “High Church,” and the other “Kilroy Was Here.” The former relies on reverence or a religious motivation, and the latter on persistent desecration. Understanding

the significance of the message is the third and greatest challenge.

 

Benford, who participated in a 1989 study involving the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot 188 Archivaria 52 Project (http://www.wipp.carlsbad.nm.us/), suggests that the simplest way to

ensure deep time survival of a message from the past is through the High

Church approach of instilling a sense of fear and wonder or awe. In the context of his book’s first chapter – how to design a persistent message

warning future generations of a nuclear waste storage site – Benford

sums up the perils of digital records accurately enough:

 

In principle, digital is forever because it is easy to renew. Making exact copies is simple and costs much less than any other medium. But so far the burgeoning industry has not made a medium that can persist physically…. So far, digital lasts forever – or five years, whichever comes first.

 

Even if durable, digital media have an innate translation problem old-fashioned print does not. A document’s meaning dissolves into a bit-stream of electronic zeroes and ones, meaningful only to the software that made it. Stored bits can represent text, a pixel dot in an image, an audio symbol, a number. There is no way to know which, or how to retrieve it, except by reading it with the proper software and hardware.

 

Even when translated to new media and software, material filtering through a new format is often distorted…. All this suggests that our recent passion for the digital is probably a passing fervor…. it seems an unpromising way to consign one’s vital messages to the abyss of centuries….

 

Eventually, neither paper and CD-ROMs, nor any foreseeable computer-based method, are for eternity…. How to talk across the ages, to call out a warning? … More deeply, how do we induce respect for whatever warnings we leave? Nobody will revere small, digital records, so they should be associated with larger, striking monuments(p. 62–63).

Benford’s book reminds archivists that we are not as prominent as we might think we are. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since too much societal oversight would tend to politicize archival decision making and affect how and when records are created. Some have speculated this has occurred in jurisdictions where privacy and government disclosure (freedom of information) legislation has been enacted. Despite the increasing use of computers over the past thirty years, archives, unlike libraries, were latecomers to the field of digital preservation. Benford’s work sounds another clarion for better cooperation between mutual spheres of cultural preservation. As digital age governments of industrialized nations embrace the electronic services delivery model (e-government), managing and preserving these virtual records are

finally getting the attention they deserve. As Benford effectively argues, nevertheless, “[i]t is sobering to contemplate that our distant heirs may know us best not by our Michelangelos or Einsteins or Shakespeares, but by our waste markers, our messages aboard space craft, our signatures upon the soil and species, or our effect upon their landscapes, descended from ours” (p. 202–203). Archivists, though rarely mentioned in this text, will have directly contributed in some fashion to at least the first three of those enduring monuments to our existence as a species.

 

 


GRAVITY’S WHISPERS

Published by Gregory Benford on February 15th, 2016

A STORY FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL NATURE IN 2010

Gregory Benford

“The best is the enemy of the good,” Sam said over my shoulder.

I whirled around, knowing the voice, smiling. “What—?”

He sauntered in, grinning in his lopsided way. “At 11 PM you’re still working. Tsk tsk! Know your limits. The data can’t get better when you’re tired, y’know.”

I threw down my pencil. “Right. Pursue the good. Let’s get a beer.”

At the Very Large Array, this meant a long drive back to Socorro. Our offices were there, but I liked spending time out among the big radio dishes, too. On the way back I rolled down the window to catch the tangy spring sagebrush. Plus wondering if  Sam the Slow had finally decided to make a date with me, in his odd way. I’d been waiting half a year.

Then he said, slow and sly, “I was just passing by, thought I’d follow up on that puzzle I sent last week.”

I recalled he had sent a noise-dominated file. I had run one of my custom programs, gotten interested, and wasted a day pulling out a pattern. “You know me too well. I cracked it, yeah.” I gave him a smile he didn’t notice. “Not a very interesting solution.”

“You’d be surprised,” Sam said, watching the desert slide by.

“It’s you guys who surprised the world—the first gravity waves, wow.”

“Yeah, decades of work on LIGO paid off.”

Sam was also modest, a trait that gave him gal problems in the fanatic tech crowd more than once; I had checked. Getting a gravitational wave to tweak a cavity, and detect that with interfering waves, a huge problem, had burned twenty years of his life.

He shrugged, lifted an eyebrow. “We thought it was a signal from a rotating neutron star with a deformed crust. Say, you have that solution handy?”

I flipped open my laptop. “Sure. It’s a string of numbers, turns out to be the zeroes of the Riemann zeta function.”

“Uh huh. Which is–?”

“A famous function of complex argument. It analytically continues the sum of an infinite series.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Not so.” At least he was looking at me now. “It’s a big deal in analytic number theory. Plenty of applications in physics, probability theory, Bose–Einstein condensates, spin waves —“

“Useful, good.” Sam was usually sharp, focused, but now he gazed pensively at the stars.

“So how’d you get the detection?” It would help if I got him started about his work–that is, his life. “You guys got rid of the noise from that road traffic and logging at the Louisiana site?”

“Yeah, took years. The signal we finally got had plenty of chirps and bursts in it, a bitch to clean up.”

I grinned. Sam had worked decades on LIGO, and now the milestone was here. “Now that you’ve got LIGO sensitive enough, there’ll be plenty of signals. Supernovas in other galaxies, maybe rattling cosmic strings—“

“I want to understand this one. It’s not a neutron star crust vibration, I think.”

“Huh?” I was already tasting the beer in my mind.

“That decoding you did? That was our signal.”

I blinked. “Can’t be.  No natural system—“

“Exactly.” Sam hooked an eyebrow at me.

What? A tunable gravitational wave with a signal? That’s im—“

“—possible, I know. Unless you can sling around neutron stars and make them sing in code.”

Maybe, just maybe, this could be more important than at last getting Sam to date me. Maybe. “Then… you should know that it’s not just a list of numbers. After twenty of the Riemann zeros, there’s something like a proof of the Riemann hypothesis.”

He frowned. “Uh, so?”

“It’s one of the greatest unsolved problems in mathematics. It says  that any non-trivial zero has its real part exactly equal to 1/2.”

He shook his head. “And that’s the attention-catching opener to a—a what?“

I finally got it. “To a SETI signal?”

“Look, I sent you that because we couldn‘t understand it. Now you’re gonna tell me—“

He still didn’t get it. Maybe I didn’t either. “Look, it can’t be. Opening up with pi, or e, prime numbers, the fine structure constant—that makes sense.“

“Sense to the likes of us.”

“So I must’ve made some mistake.”

“No you didn’t.” Sam looked at me with a warm smile. “You’re the only one I could run to with this analysis – the rest of ‘em would laugh. You’re good, really good.”

I leaned over and kissed him. “Congratulations on the Nobel.”

He kissed back, his eyes flickered, he grinned–but he didn’t look happy. He grasped the steering wheel and peered ahead into the starlit darkness. In the high desert you can see stars above the headlights. I knew him enough to see that he was thinking about something that could whisper across the galaxies with gravitation, not using obvious means like radio or lasers. “Any mind that thinks the Riemann numbers are a calling card – and can throw around stars…”

I got it. “Yeah. Know your limits. Maybe it’s good, really good, that we can’t possibly answer them.”

He laughed, bless him. But I didn’t.

 

 

 


JOURNEY TO THE GENRE’S CORE

Published by Gregory Benford on January 22nd, 2016

 

We’ve tried for decades to isolate what true, irreducible inner quality SF has that makes it a separable genre. Damon Knight’s notion that philosophical speculation is the True Core raises interesting questions, but I feel does not answer most of them.

When I suggested that hard SF “somehow seems to be the core” I was actually reporting a widespread belief, largely uninspected, of the bulk of the reading (and viewing) public. You can’t help noticing that the bestseller lists carry the names of hard SF stalwarts – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke – and not the Sturgeons, Pohls and Bradburys of the same vintage. Question is, why?

Partly, I suspect it comes from the fact that the public likes fiction deeply grounded in the real world. It’s long been known that nonfiction top bestsellers (leaving out diet books etc.) outsell fiction top bestsellers by a typical ratio of 2:1. Similarly, the didactic fiction of Mitchener et al sells better than the best thrillers. Even in as fanciful an area as SF, these biases probably hold sway. Hard SF benefits from this basically American taste; as Charles Platt remarks in Science Fiction Review 51, “I open a nonfiction book, or a rigorously realistic novel, with the definite expectation of discovering new and interesting information,” and to his surprise, most of his friends do, too.

But Damon’s case against hard SF as the centre of the field rests also on his odd notion that our Founding Fathers, Verne and Wells, weren’t hard SF types. Verne conspicuously allied himself with his contemporary technology, stating on one famous retort to a critic, “I never invent!”  When he needed to get characters to the moon, he used what seemed possible at the time – huge cannon – and tried to take account of celestial facts. He got lots of it wrong, but that only means he didn’t do it well, not that he was opposed to the standard of fidelity to fact.

Similarly, Wells‘ famous injunction – assume one improbable thing, and then deal rigorously with it – announces a central tenet of hard SF. There must be a fantastic element, but then the methods should be orderly and convincing. His Cavorite wasn’t obviously impossible when he wrote of it, neither was the time machine, or invaders from Mars.

In fact, Heinlein (clearly a hard SF type) descends obviously from Wells; his “The Door into Summer” specifically refers to “When the Sleeper Wakes.”

True enough, the aim of some hard SF is the large landscape – but not of all hard SF. To dismiss rigor as “novelty” is to miss that invention is central to SF. If our standard of abiding worth is to be that a book should stand up to (and reward) re-reading, then novelty clearly would fade. But hard SF can and does contain drama, emotion and philosophy tightly grouped around the central images of science. Novelty is not the only purpose of hard SF.

Which brings us to Damon’s assertion that philosophical inquiry is the true centre of the field. The problem with this is that, First, the statement is too vague. Most of “serious” literature has philosophical aims; so do most of the arts. So what? We would like the core of SF to distinguish it from, say, the fictions of Sartre.

We‘ve seen claims through the history of literature that it is essentially allegorical (18th century) or reportorial (19th century) or metaphorical (20th century) or philosophical (as Damon claims for SF). Of course it’s not merely any of these aspects. All general aspects can be applied; the interesting question is what’s distinctive about a given class of works?

Second, too much SF doesn‘t have significant philosophical inquiry. This is even true of hard SF. For example, Niven’s short work and many of his novels are devoid of it. Indeed, when he collaborates with Pournelle we can clearly see an outside hand inserted into it, lending a different flavour. Also, lots of SF adventure fiction isn’t philosophical (Leigh Brackett, Chalker, McCaffrey). Leinster‘s “First Contact” isn’t philosophical unless you force a metaphysical interpretation. Neither is “Arena,” etc.

You could maintain, of course, that “high” SF is more philosophical – but it’s got other virtues, too, which make it “high.”

Fantasy is mostly pastoral, animistic, and politically conservative. SF is more often urban, technophilic [sic], and politically radical – in the sense of striking at fundamental issues. Using a distinct disjunction from contemporary reality demands thinking about basic issues. Sometimes this has a libertarian flavour, as befits the independent-mindedness of writers everywhere. I wouldn’t call right-wing political theory “simplistic,” as Damon does, since pragmatism (which he cites) isn‘t necessarily an inferior philosophy.

Damon would cast aside scientific fidelity in favour of reaching a philosophical point, saying “it does not matter a rap if the science is wrong.” But this hazards losing a goodly fraction of the audience. Worse, it also casts the philosophy into contrast with known facts.

How seriously this is depends on, the details of how it’s done, the particular story, etc. How seriously will a reader take an authors’s ruminations or explorations on metaphysics, when he’s clearly shown that he doesn’t feel bound by what we’ve already learned about the world? You run the risk of merely demonstrating to the reader that your “original philosophical point” applies only to a dream world.

I feel that we are in the business of enlisting the devices of realism in the cause of the fantastic. One of the masters of the exact, gritty detail in short stories is certainly Damon Knight. And he’s at his best while doing this. His “l See You” uses an invention which isn’t theoretically impossible (as I remember it). Similarly, “Masks” is perfectly plausible.

That’s what gives these stories quite a bit of their power. The working th[r]ough of consequences, ever mindful of what he know of the world, doesn’t merely introduce “novelty,” as Damon has it. Doing so plays tennis with the net up – always a more interesting spectacle. I’m sure that‘s the way it will be – played twenty years hence.

[C] May 4th 1984 Gregory Benford

 

Big Universe


Exotic Paths To The Stars JOHN CRAMER

Published by Gregory Benford on December 1st, 2015

Everyone knows from pop science fiction such as Star Wars and Star Trek that ideas of how to cross immense distances in a twinkling of time do emerge from the odd and sometimes extravagant realms of theoretical physics. How plausible are such notions?

The truthful answer is that no one knows. Progress in the furthest realms of General Relativity and quantum mechanics must proceed from experiment, and there are few lab experiments that can touch on such issues. To survey the current landscape of such thinking, the 100 Year Starship Symposium held an Exotic Technologies Session chaired by John Cramer. Here he reports on the major ideas treated there, with some insightful criticisms of his own, and much background material useful to the interested but non-specialist observer. One recalls the Mark Twain observation, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Exotic Paths To The Stars

John Cramer

I.  Introduction

 

When I first came to Seattle in the mid-1960s to assume my new faculty position at the University of Washington, I remarked to one of my new Physics Department colleagues that the magnificent views of Mt. Rainier, available from many parts of the city, gave Seattle a special and unique flavor and ambiance.

“You, know,” he said, “Rainier is dormant at the moment, but it’s still an active volcano.  It erupts every five thousand years.  The geological record shows regular thick ash falls from Rainier and giant mud flows down the glacier-fed river valleys, where a lot of people live now.”

“Really,” I said.  “When was the last eruption?”

“Five thousand years ago,” he said with a quirky smile.

That anecdote provides a good analogy to our present situation, as residents of this planet.  All of our “eggs”, our cities, our people, our art and culture, our accumulated knowledge and understanding, are presently contained in one pretty blue “basket” called Planet Earth, which orbits in a Solar System that is configured to hurl very large rocks in our direction at random intervals.

It is estimated that a total of about 14 million tons of meteoritic material falls upon Planet Earth each year, much of it from the debris of asteroids and comets.  Meteors come in all sizes, and approximately 60 giant meteorites five or more kilometers in diameter have impacted Planet Earth in the past 600 million years. Even the smallest of these would have carved a crater some 95 kilometers across and produced an extinction event.

The geological fossil records shows evidence of “punctuated equilibrium”, extended periods in which life forms expand and fit themselves into the available ecological niches, punctuated by extinction events in which many species become extinct and the survivors scramble to adapt to the new conditions1.  Life on Planet Earth may have been “pumped” on a fast track to its present state of evolution by this cycle of extinction and regeneration.  We may owe our very existence to this pump of evolution2, but we do not want to get caught in the next pump cycle.  We, as a species, need to diversify, to place our eggs in many baskets instead of just one, before the forces of nature conspire to produce another extinction event that could include us.

The basic problem with such a “basket diversification” project is that we reside at the bottom of a very deep gravity well, from which the laws of physics make it very difficult for us to escape.  The only escape method presently in use involves giant chemical rockets that burn and eject vast volumes of expensive and toxic fuel in order to lift tiny payloads part-way out of the gravity well of the Earth.

And even if we can escape most of Earth’s gravity well, things are not much better in near-Earth orbit.  The Solar System, outside Earth’s protective atmosphere and shielding magnetic field, is a fairly hostile place, a hard vacuum environment in which the Sun’s flares and storms send out wave after wave of sterilizing radiation.

Further, the human biology seems to require the pull of gravity for a healthy existence.  Extended periods in low gravity lead to calcium loss and muscular and skeletal degeneration.  Our micro-gee International Space Station is an unhealthy place for long-term habitation, and astronauts return from extended stays there as near-invalids.

The other planets and moons of the Solar System, potential sources of the needed pull of gravity, are not promising sites for human habitation.  Mars is too cold, too remote from the Sun, and has a thin atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide with a pressure of 1/100 of an Earth atmosphere.  Venus is much too hot, with a surface temperature around 870 °F and an atmospheric pressure, mostly carbon dioxide, about 90 times that of Earth.  Moons, asteroids, and artificial space habitats with centrifugal pseudo-gravity3 may be better sites for human colonies, but they all would have problems with low gravity, radiation shielding, and resource transport.  To find a true Earth-like habitat, we need to leave the Solar System for the earth-like planets orbiting other stars.

But if escaping Earth’s gravity well is difficult, travel to the stars is many orders of magnitude more difficult.  Fairly optimistic studies of interstellar travel, presented at the 100YSS Symposium in 2011, show very convincingly that there is little hope of reaching the nearby stars in a human lifetime using any conventional propulsion techniques, even with propulsion systems involving nuclear energy.   The universe is simply too big, and the stars are too far away.

 

Hieronymus Bosch  (c.1450-1516)
Ascent of the Blessed
The Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

To reach the stars, we need propulsion techniques that somehow circumvent Newton’s 3rd law and do not require the storage, transport, and expulsion of large volumes of reaction mass.  Or even better, we need trans-spatial shortcuts like wormholes that avoid the need to traverse the enormous distances between stars.  In short, because conventional technologies are inadequate, the human-lifetime-scale pathways to the stars require over-the-horizon “exotic” technologies, perhaps like the one illustrated here by Hieronymus Bosch.

 

I was Chairman of the Exotic Technologies Session held on October 1, 2011, at the 100 year Starship Symposium in Orlando Florida.  This chapter draws on the talks given in that session, but it does not represent a summary of the presentations.  Rather, I want focus on three lines of development in the area of exotic technologies that were featured at the Symposium, developments that might allow us to reach the stars on a time scale of a human lifetime: (1) propellantless space drives4, (2) warp drives5,6, and (3) wormholes7,8.  With reference to the latter two topics, I will also discuss some cautions from the theoretical physics community about the application of general relativity to “metric engineered” devices like wormholes and warp drives that require exotic matter.

 

 

II. Space Drives

 

The term “space drive” refers to an exotic technology that does not presently exist and that would allow the propulsion of a space vehicle without the need for rocket-style expulsion (or reflection) of reaction mass-energy.  In the leadoff talk of the Exotic Technologies track of the 100YSS Symposium, Marc G. Millis summarized the current prospects for space drives9.  He concluded that “although no propulsion breakthroughs appear imminent, the subject has matured to (the stage) where the relevant questions have been broached and are beginning to be answered.”  In this section, I want to consider the topic further and to discuss one of the most promising space drive developments, one involving Mach’s principle and inertia variation.

The basic problem with the space drive concept is Newton’s 3rd law of motion, one form of the law of conservation of momentum.  In conventional rocket propulsion, a space vehicle can be propelled forward and increase its forward momentum only if propellant with an equal and opposite incremental momentum is expelled as exhaust.  No internal motion, no shaking, spinning, or orbiting of masses, no tilting of eccentric flywheels, can produce any net momentum change in the overall object.  Something must go backwards if something else goes forward.

As a work-around to avoid carrying onboard reaction mass, emission, reflection, or absorption of light from a beam of light (laser or incoherent) or radio waves  could, in principle, produce significant propulsion and momentum change in a space vehicle that does not carry and expel reaction mass (solar sails or beam riders).  The problem with such schemes is that the momentum content of light is very small, only its energy divided by the speed of light, and therefore the thrust (in newtons) is the power (in watts) divided by the speed of light.  The speed of light is a large number, making the energy cost is very high for a small change in momentum.

Nevertheless, light sailing and light beam propulsion are possibilities.  They are tricky because the resulting momentum increment must always have a momentum component away from the light source (e.g., the sun or drive laser).  They are  expensive because many square kilometers of light sail and/or multi-megawatt lasers are required to achieve thrust comparable to rocket propulsion.  They are inefficient because large quantities of light energy are required for small quantities of momentum change, with most of the light beam energy reflected away and wasted, in the sense that it does not end up as kinetic energy.

Millis’ overview of possible space-drive technologies briefly mentioned the work of Prof. James Woodward of Cal. State Fullerton on Mach’s principle and inertia variation.  However, there have been some new results since the Symposium that I would like to discuss further.

First, what is Mach’s principle?  The physical property of mass has two distinct aspects, gravitational mass and inertial mass.   Gravitational mass produces and responds to gravitational fields.  It is represented by the two mass factors in Newton’s inverse-square law of gravity (F12 = G m1m2/r122).  Inertial mass is the tendency of matter to resists acceleration.  It is represented by the mass factor in Newton’s 2nd law of motion (F=ma).  These two aspects of mass always track one another.   There are no known objects with a large inertial mass and a small gravitational mass, or vice versa.  One of the deep mysteries of physics is the connection between inertial and gravitational mass.

Ernst Mach (1838–1916) was an Austrian physicist whose unpublished ideas about the origin of inertia influenced Einstein10.  Mach’s principle, as elucidated by Einstein, attempts to connect inertia with gravitation by suggesting that the resistance of inertial mass to acceleration arises from the long-range gravitational forces from all the other masses in the universe acting on a massive object (so that, in an universe empty of other masses, there would be no inertia).  In essence, Mach’ principle asserts that inertial and gravitational mass must be the same because inertia is, at its roots, a gravitational effect.

Albert Einstein liked Mach’s principle and used its implications to formulate his famous equivalence principle, a cornerstone of general relativity, which asserts that gravitational and inertial mass are indistinguishable in all situations.  In a small isolated room, according to the equivalence principle, it would be impossible to determine from local measurements whether the room was on the surface of the Earth in a 1 g gravitational field or was in a rocket ship accelerating at 1 g through gravity-free space.  The equivalence principle is now generally accepted in physics, and general relativity (GR) has become our standard model of gravity, but its underlying basis in Mach’s principle has never been properly derived, understood, or tested until now.

Dennis Sciama11 used a simplified low-field reduction of Einstein’s general relativity equations to show that in a uniform flat universe, long range gravitational interactions produce a force that resists acceleration, producing inertia.  James Woodward12, 4 extended the work of Sciama by considering the time dependent inertial effects that occur when mass-energy is in flow, i.e., when mass-energy is moved from one part of the system to another while the system is being accelerated.

The Woodward/Sciama result is surprising.  It predicts fairly large time-dependent variations in inertia, the tendency of matter to resist acceleration.  Most gravitational effects predicted in general relativity, e.g., the gravitational deflection of light, frame dragging, gravitational time dilation, etc., are exceedingly small and difficult to observe, because the algebraic expressions describing them always have a numerator that includes Newton’s gravitational constant G, a physical constant that has a very small value due to the weakness of gravity as a force.  The inertial transient effects predicted by the Woodward/Sciama calculations are unusual and different, in that they have G in the denominator, with the result that dividing by a small number (G) produces a sizable effect.

Can varying the inertial mass of an object produce thrust, for example by pushing it forward when the inertial mass is low and pulling it backward when the inertial mass is high, thereby “rowing” through space?  Woodward has tested for a net thrust from this effect using piezoelectric devices that combine stored energy with accelerated motion.  His results are unpublished and have not been confirmed by others who have attempted to reproduce them13.  However, the recent work, showing thrust of a few tens of micronewtons, has been posted on the internet and widely discussed14.  It has the possibility of being a real effect.

However, I would like to introduce a cautionary note here about thrust from inertial mass variation and momentum conservation.  The relativistically invariant form of Newton’s 2nd Law, as applied to Woodward-type thrusters, should be F = dp/dt, where F is the thrust produced and p = m v is the momentum of the system producing the thrust, with inertial mass m and velocity v.  When the mass is constant with time, this equation becomes F = m a, the classical form of Newton’s 2nd Law that Woodward uses in predicting the thrust derived from his calculations and that is the basis for the “rowing” space-drive effect described above.

However, when the inertial mass is varying with time, as it should be in the system of interest, the appropriate form of Newton’s 2nd Law is F = m a + v dm/dt, i.e., one must time-differentiate both the varying velocity and the varying mass factors that form the momentum.  It turns out that in any mass-varying space drive, the 2nd term produces a force that exactly cancels the force derived from the first term, so that, if both force terms are generated within the system, no net thrust is produced, even in a system where the inertial mass can be caused to vary with time.  Woodward claims that the 2nd term is not an internal force, but is a distant and external one because of the way that inertial mass and momentum couple to distant objects, so that it represents the reaction force that the rest of the universe receives from the action-at-a-distance of the drive.  This is an interesting argument that may or may not be correct.  In his talk in the Exotic Technologies track of the 100YSS Symposium, Eric Davis15 perhaps provided some support for this view by presenting arguments, in the context of FTL space warps, that conservation laws, and in particular momentum conservation, are local flat-space rules based on symmetries and may not directly apply to large-scale situations in which curved space and general relativity are important.  If Woodward’s reported observations of thrust can be verified, that should perhaps settle this issue.

We note here that the Mach/Schiama/Woodward approach may also have possible implications for starship travel in another way.  There is second negative-definite term in the Woodward/Sciama inertia variation calculation that could have important general relativity implications for wormholes and warp drives.  This will be discussed in Section V below.  However, we note that at least one physicist has questioned16 the whether Woodward’s second term is implicit in the derivation of the first term.

 

 

III.  Cautionary Note:  Limits to Exotic Applications of General Relativity

 

When I was in studying physics in graduate school, the calculations of general relativity were done exclusively by hypothesizing a configuration of mass-energy and then calculating the “metric” or distortion of space time that it produced.  This conventional approach has lead to many interesting results, but none that could be considered “exotic” or “unphysical”.

But there is another way to do such calculations in general relativity, an approach that has been labeled “metric engineering”.  One specifies a space-time metric that will produce some desired result, for example a wormhole or a warp drive, and then calculates the distribution of masses and forces that would be required to produce such a metric, with all its consequences.  General relativity, used in this way, becomes “exotic”, suggesting the possibility of transversable wormholes, faster-than-light warp drives, and even time machines.

Dr. Keith Olum, in the final Exotic Technologies paper of the 100YSS Symposium of 2011, presented a cautionary note that emphasized that the exotic solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity, which appear to provide a pathway to the stars, may not be realizable17.

Many of the theoretical physicists who work with general relativity have had fundamental objections to the very idea of wormholes and warp drives, which they consider to be unphysical.  Some of them have decided that one should erect a “picket fence” around those solutions of Einstein’s equations that are considered to be physically reasonable, and to place exotica like stable transversable wormholes, faster-than-light warp drives, and time machines in the forbidden area outside the fence, excluded because it is presumed that Nature does not allow such disreputable objects to exist. They are, in effect, attempting to discover new laws of physics that would place restrictions forbidding certain GR solutions.

In discussing the behavior of collapsed-matter singularities in general relativity, Hawking and Ellis18 introduced a number of “energy conditions” that, in their view, had to be observed by acceptable solutions of general relativity and might represent the picket fence mentioned above.  The first of these is called the Weak Energy Condition (WEC).  In essence, the WEC assumes that negative energy is the source of “problems” with GR and requires that for all observers, the local energy in all space-time locations must be greater than or equal to zero.  In other words, if any possible observer would see a negative energy, then that solution of Einstein’s equations is excluded by the WEC. A less restrictive variant of the WEC is the Average Weak Energy Condition (AWEC), which requires that when time-averaged along some arbitrary world-line through all time, the net energy must be greater than or equal to zero, so that any time period when the energy is negative must be compensated by a period of positive energy.  In his talk in the Exotic Technologies track of the 100YSS Symposium, Eric Davis15 provided a detailed description and analysis of these energy  conditions.

The WEC, AWEC, and the other similar energy rules are “made-up” laws of Nature and are not derivable from general relativity itself. They appear to be obeyed for observations of all known forms of matter and energy that do not fall within the domain of quantum mechanics.  However, even for simple situations involving quantum phenomena (examples: the Casimir effect, squeezed vacuum, and the Hawking evaporation of black holes), the WEC and AWEC are both violated.

More recently Ford and Roman19,20 have derived from quantum field theory certain quantum inequalities (QI) that must be observed by solutions of the equations of general relativity.  Basically, one chooses a “sampling function”, some bell-shaped curve having unit area and a width that specifies a particular restricted region of time.  This function is then used with quantum field theory methods to average the energy per unit volume of a field within the time-sampling envelope and to place limits on how much negative energy is allowed to exist for how long.

These quantum inequalities are bad news for would-be practitioners of metric engineering.  Taken at face value, the QI say that stable wormholes may be impossible and that a warp drive might, at best, exist for too short a time to go anywhere.  While a wormhole might wink into existence during the short time that the negative energy is present, it would wink out of existence again before any matter could pass through it.  It appears that within the QI conditions, when negative energy is created, it is either too small in magnitude or too brief in duration to do anything interesting.

However, it is not clear whether Woodward’s proposed techniques employing inertia transients (see Section V below) are subject to the QI limitations.  Further, there are reasons to doubt that quantum field theory can be trusted in its application to the field-energy situations envisioned by the QI calculations.

We know that quantum field theory must be wrong, in some fundamental way. It attributes far too much positive energy to space-time itself. The density of “dark energy”, the irreducible intrinsic energy in a given volume of space, as deduced from the observations of astrophysicists investigating Type Ia supernovas and the space-frequency structure of the cosmic microwave background is about 6.7 x 10-10 joules per cubic meter.  The same quantity, as calculated by quantum field theory, is about 1040 joules per cubic meter. Thus, quantum field theory has missed the mark in this very fundamental calculation involving energy density by about 50 orders of magnitude!

Therefore, until quantum field theory (or its quantum gravity successor) can accurately predict the energy content of the vacuum, I feel that the restrictions that it places on metric engineering cannot be taken completely seriously.  Woodward21 has also argued that the derivation of the QI involves use of the 2nd law of thermodynamics in a way that may be inappropriate for artificially produced wormholes.  These arguments perhaps leave the pathway to the stars, as represented by the doorway presented by metric engineering solutions of general relativity, open just a crack.

 

 

IV.  Warp Drives and General Relativity

 

General relativity treats special relativity as a restricted sub-theory that applies locally to any region of space sufficiently small and flat that its gravity-induced curvature can be neglected.  General relativity does not forbid faster-than-light (FTL) travel or communication, but it does require that the local restrictions of special relativity must be observed. In other words, light speed is the local speed limit, but the broader considerations of general relativity may provide an end-run way of circumventing this local statute.

One example of FTL motion allowed by general relativity is the expansion of the universe itself.  As the universe expands, new space is being created between any two separated objects. The objects themselves may be at rest with respect to their local environment and with respect to the cosmic microwave background, but the distance between the objects may grow at a rate greater than the speed of light. According to the standard model of cosmology, remote parts of our universe are receding from us at FTL speeds, and therefore are completely unreachable and isolated from us.  As the rate of expansion of the universe increases due to the action of dark energy, a growing volume of the universe is disappearing over this redshift horizon and becoming inaccessible to us.

Another example of effective FTL motion is a wormhole connecting two widely separated locations in space, say five light-years apart. An object might take a few minutes to move with at low speed through the neck of a wormhole, observing the local speed-limit laws all the way.  However, by transiting the wormhole the object has traveled five light years in a few minutes, producing an effective speed of a million times the velocity of light.

Miguel Alcubierre, using the technique of metric engineering described above, proposed a way of beating the FTL speed limit that is somewhat like the expansion of the universe, but on a more local scale5.  He developed a “metric” for general relativity, a mathematical representation of the curvature of space, that is completely consistent with Einstein’s equations.  It describes a region of flat space surrounded by a spatial “warp bubble” that propels the flat region forward at any arbitrary velocity, including FTL speeds.

Alcubierre’s warp is constructed from mathematical hyperbolic tangent functions that create a very peculiar distortion of space at the edges of the flat-space volume.  In effect, new space is rapidly being created (like an expanding universe) at the back side of the moving flat-space volume, and pre-existing space is being annihilated (like a universe collapsing to a Big Crunch) at the front side of the moving flat-space volume.  Thus, a space ship within the volume of the Alcubierre warp bubble (and the flat-space volume itself) would be pushed forward by the expansion of space at its rear and the contraction of space in front.

 

Expansion (red) and contraction (blue) of space
in the Alcubierre warp drive metric

 

For those familiar with usual rules of special relativity, with its Lorentz contraction, mass increase, and time dilation, the Alcubierre warp metric has some rather peculiar aspects.  Since a ship at the center of the moving volume of the metric is at rest with respect to locally flat space, there are no relativistic mass increase or time dilation effects.  The on-board spaceship clock runs at the same speed as the clock of an external observer, and that observer will detect no increase in the mass of the moving ship, even when it travels at FTL speeds.  Moreover, Alcubierre has shown that even when the ship is accelerating, it is always in free fall, and the crew would experience no accelerational gee-forces when it starts and stops.  Enormous tidal forces would be present near the edges of the flat-space volume because of the very large space curvature there, but by suitable specification of the metric, these could be made negligible within the volume occupied by the ship.  Talks in the Exotic Technologies track of the 100YSS Symposium by Eric Davis15 and Harold White22 contain additional discussions of the Alcubierre warp metric, possible extensions and improvements, and its control.

All of this, for those of us who would like to go to the stars without the annoying limitations imposed by special relativity, appears to be too good to be true. “What’s the catch?” we ask. As it turns out, there are several “catches” in the Alcubierre warp drive scheme.  The first is that, while his warp metric is a valid solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, we have no idea how to produce such a distortion of space-time.  Its implementation would require the imposition of radical curvature on extended regions of space.  Within our present state of knowledge, the only way of producing curved space is by using mass, and the masses we have available for works of engineering lead to negligible space curvature.  Moreover, even if we could do engineering with mini black holes (which have lots of curved space near their surfaces) it is not clear how an Alcubierre warp could be produced.  Further, it is not clear how the warp bubble could be steered or controlled, since the interior volume of the warp bubble is completely isolated from the outside, so that steering commands, control information, and views of the outside would be completely blocked.  We note, however, that if quantum nonlocality could be used for signaling, an issue that is currently being investigated by the author23, that development would solve the problem of warp-bubble control.

Alcubierre has also pointed out a more fundamental problem with his warp drive. General relativity provides a procedure for determining how much energy density (energy per unit volume) is implicit in a given metric (or curvature of space-time).  He shows that the energy density is negative, rather large, and proportional to the square of the velocity with which the warp moves forward.  This means that all of the proposed energy conditions (see Section IV) of general relativity are violated, which can be taken as arguments against the possibility of creating a working Alcubierre drive. Alcubierre, following the lead of wormhole theorists, argues that quantum field theory permits the existence of regions of negative energy density under special circumstances, and cites the Casimir effect as an example. Thus, the situation for the Alcubierre drive is similar to that of stable wormholes: they are solutions to the equations of general relativity, but one would need “exotic matter” with large quantities of  negative mass-energy to actually produce them, and we have none at the moment.

At the 2011 100 Year Starship Symposium, NASA’s Harold “Sonny” White reviewed the Alcubierre scheme. He discussed techniques for minimizing the amount of exotic matter required, and showed his plans for an optical interferometer that could be used to attempt observation of the small distortions in space-time that might be induced in the vicinity of a high-voltage toroidal capacitor device22.  This he characterized as an initial step in the direction of producing the space-time distortions of a magnitude that would be needed for a true warp-drive of the type described by Alcubierre.  A recent check with Dr. White indicated that the interferometer has now been constructed and tested, and a novel interference-pattern filtering technique has been devised for improving its sensitivity, but the space-distortion tests themselves have not yet been performed24.

In his talk at the 2011 100 Year Starship Symposium, Eric Davis also reported that a combined effort of EarthTech International, Inc. and Lockheed-Martin is using  meta-materials to create optical analogues that simulate the behavior of wormholes and warp drives in the laboratory15.  We await the results of these interesting efforts.

 

 

 

 

 

V.  Worm Holes and General Relativity

 

In 1916, Albert Einstein first introduced his general theory of relativity, the theory that to this day remains our standard model for gravitation25. Twenty years later, he and his long-time collaborator Nathan Rosen published a paper showing that implicit in the general relativity formalism is a curved-space structure that can join two distant regions of space-time through a tunnel-like curved-space shortcut26.  Their purpose was not to promote travel to the stars, but to explain the existence of fundamental particles like electrons and positrons by describing them as the ends of space-tunnels threaded by electric lines of force. The lines of electric flux would go in at the electron end of the tunnel and emerge at the positron end.  This Einstein-Rosen electron model was subsequently shown to have a serious problem when it was demonstrated that the smallest possible mass-energy of such a curved-space topology is larger than that of a Planck mass, a few micrograms, and far larger than the 511 keV mass-energy of an electron.

The Einstein-Rosen work was disturbing to many physicists of the time because such a “tunnel” through space-time, which came to be known in the late 1930s and 40s as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, could in principle allow the transmission of information and matter faster than the speed of light.  In 1962 John A. Wheeler and Robert W. Fuller discovered that the Einstein-Rosen bridge space-time structure, which Wheeler re-christened as a “wormhole,” was dynamically unstable in field-free space27.  They showed that if such a wormhole somehow opened, it would close up again before even a single photon could be transmitted through it, thereby preventing superluminal transmission of information.

In 1989 the instability of wormholes was called into question when Michael Morris, Kip Thorne, and Ulvi Yurtsever described how an “advanced civilization” might: (a) create a large wormhole; (b) stabilize it to prevent its re-collapse; and (c) convert it to a time machine, a device for traveling (or at least communicating) back and forth in time7. This remarkable paper, which borders on science fiction in its approach, has a very serious purpose. There is presently no well-established theory (quantum gravity) that can accommodate both quantum mechanics and the physics of strong gravitational fields within the same mathematical framework.  The paper of Morris, Thorne, and Yurtsever is a vehicle for guessing, in a rather unorthodox way, what restrictions a proper theory of quantum gravity might place on the physics of wormholes. The authors demonstrate that general relativity contains within its framework mechanisms that appear to permit both faster-than-light travel and time travel.  If these physical “calamities” (as viewed by some physicists) are to be averted, the authors argue, it can only be done through a proper theory of quantum gravity.

How could a wormhole be created?  Empty space, when examined with quantum field theory on a sufficiently small distance scale, is not empty at all.  Even at nuclear dimensions (10-13 cm) empty space is filled with particle-antiparticle pairs that are continually flashing into a brief existence, bankrolled on the credit of borrowed mass-energy, only to wink out of existence again as the law of conservation of energy reasserts itself.  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle provides the “cover” that makes such energy juggling possible.  If the length-scale is contracted to a size appropriate to quantum gravity (10-33 cm) this quantum fireworks should intensify to become a “quantum foam” of violent fluctuations in the topology and geometry of space itself.  Quantum black holes should form and vanish in a span of time of 10-23 seconds; highly curved and convoluted regions of space-time in any physically allowed configuration should have a similarly brief existence.  In this environment, Morris, Thorne, and Yurtsever speculated, it may be possible for a civilization, one considerably more advanced than ours, to pull a wormhole out of the quantum foam, stabilize it, and enlarge it enormously to create a connection between two nearby points in space.  This would exploit the well-known quantum mechanical process called “tunneling”, a jump from one allowed energy state to another across a barrier of intermediate states that are forbidden by energy conservation.

To stabilize a wormhole pulled from the quantum foam, preventing its immediate re-collapse, Morris, Thorne, and Yurtsever proposed to use the Casimir effect in the mouth of the wormhole, creating a region of negative mass-energy that would force it to remain open.  They suggest that this might be accomplished by placing a pair of spheres with equal electric charges at the two spatial entrances of the wormhole. The spheres would be held in place by a delicate balance, the attractive Casimir force between them just offsetting the force of their electrical repulsion.  Such a system might be very small, an atom-scale opening permitting the passage of only a few photons at a time, or it might be large enough to pass a large space vehicle.

Having produced this stabilized wormhole, the engineering can begin.  The size of the connection can be enlarged or contracted depending on energy considerations.  The two portal ends of the wormhole connection can be separated from each other.  For example, a portal placed aboard a space ship might be carried to some location many light years away.  Such a trip might require a long time, but during the trip and afterwards instantaneous two-way communication and even transport through the wormhole might be available.

This brings us to the last point of the Morris, Thorne, and Yurtsever paper, the construction of a time machine. Suppose that initially a wormhole establishes a connection between two spatial points A and B that have no motion with respect to each other and are simultaneous in time.  By “simultaneous”, a slippery concept in relativity, we mean that an observer at A who determines a clock reading at B would get the same reading via normal space (by light beam signals corrected for transit time, for example) as he would through the wormhole.

Now suppose, in the spirit of the Twin Paradox of special relativity, that portal B is placed aboard a space ship while portal A remains on Earth. The ship carrying B, say, accelerates rapidly to 86.6% of light speed and travels a distance of 0.866 light-years, then reverses its course and returns to Earth at the same speed. On its arrival, portals A and B are placed near one another.  At 86.6% of the velocity of light, due to relativistic time dilation, from the point of view of an Earth observer any clock aboard the ship will run at just half the speed of a similar clock on Earth.  From the point of view of an observer on Earth, the round trip has taken two years, but from the point of view of an observer on the ship, the round trip has taken one year.  Therefore at the end of the trip the ship’s clock will be one year slow, as compared to an identical clock that had remained on Earth.

And, as Morris, Thorne, and Yurtsever point out, portal B will also be one year slow as compared with portal A.  Now a message that is sent through B to A will emerge one year in the future of B, and a message sent through A to B will emerge one year in the past of A!  We can send messages back and forward in time.  Similarly, a traveler making the same trips through the wormhole would travel one year into the future or the past.  The wormhole connection through space has been transformed to a connection through time, a wormhole time machine.

Do wormholes, embodying faster-than-light space travel (even with space-separated simultaneous wormholes) as well as time travel (from time-separated wormholes), demonstrate that special relativity is wrong?  Do wormholes indicate that Einstein’s special relativity speed limit is wrong?  Not at all.  The restrictions usually associated with special relativity implicitly assume that no time travel is possible.  Clearly one could travel, in effect, at an infinite velocity by traveling from one place to another at some sub-light velocity and then on arrival traveling backwards in time to the instant of departure.  To put it another way, the simultaneity measurements prohibited by special relativity must lead to a definite and unambiguous determination of the simultaneous readings of two clocks separated in space.  The clock-comparisons made possible by wormholes are not definite, because one clock could be in the future of the other, displaced by any time interval produced by the travel histories of the portals.  Special relativity, which after all is embedded in the theory of general relativity that produced these revelations about wormhole physics, must be preserved.

What law of physics gets destroyed by the construction of a wormhole space-time connection? Causality, the mysterious principle that prohibits communication backwards in time, that requires a cause to precede its effects in time sequence in all space-time reference frames.  Causality as a law of the universe would not survive even a two-way communications link across time, let alone a portal permitting trans-time matter transmission. This bothers a lot of physicists.

Eric Davis15 argues that causality is routinely violated in many situations in general relativity and is perhaps only a local flat-space constraint, like Lorentz invariance.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that we have neither relativistic starships nor any technology for capturing and stabilizing wormholes.  At present, we are able to produce only small regions containing negative mass-energy in magnitudes that are tiny compared to what would be needed to stabilize a wormhole, even if one were available to stabilize.  Is there any hope of addressing this problem?

As mentioned above, an “end run” idea comes from the work of James Woodward, as discussed in section II above.  Woodward’s derivation of the inertial transient effects of Mach’s principle in the presence of energy flow includes two terms, the larger one proportional to the second derivative of the fluctuating energy flow and the smaller one proportional to the square of its first derivative21.  The second inertia term is always negative, oscillating at twice the drive frequency between zero change in inertial mass and a reduced inertial mass.  In the tests that Woodward has performed so far, the second term has always been negligible and undetectable.

However, as described in Section II above, the Mach effects depend strongly on the driving frequency, and at sufficiently high frequencies and energy flows, the second term offers the possibility of driving the inertial mass of the system to zero, or even to negative values.  Woodward also offers arguments, based on the Arnowitt, Deser, and Misner theory of the electron28, 29, that interesting non-linear dynamic effects should occur when the mass of a system approaches zero.  Woodward argues that these dynamic effects may conspire to reveal the intrinsic “bare” mass of electrons, which is large and negative21.  We note that the existence of the 2nd mass-fluctuation term has never been tested experimentally, even in the work of Woodward.

Davis15 has pointed out another possible approach to the generation of negative energy for metric engineering purposes.  Ford and Svatier30,31 have published two papers describing action of parabolic-cylinder mirror reflectors that create a line focus, along which the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum are greatly magnified.  With a behavior similar to the gap in a the two-plate Casimir-effect configuration, this mirror configuration creates a region of negative energy density, such that a net electromagnetic force on atoms near the line focus would be in the direction that would draw them into the focus region.  In naive calculations with ideal situations, the fluctuation magnitudes and negative energy density at the line focus go singular as the focus is approached, suggesting that very large magnitudes of negative energy might be achieved at the line focus.  However, the authors argue that this extreme behavior will be limited by wavelength limits when the reflection of quantum modes ceases at the plasma frequency of the mirror.  They suggest an experimental test of the effect similar to that already performed for the Casimir effect, in which an atomic beam is deflected by the forces near the focus line.  The implication of their experimental predictions of the expected deflections is that the effect is comparable in magnitude to the Casimir effect, i.e., not very large.  Nevertheless, this development appears to offer the possibility of developing large negative energy densities in a limited region that might match the requirements of the “thin-shell” wormhole and warp drive configurations that have been proposed.

Thus, in principle we have two nascent technologies that might satisfy the requirements for exotic matter and negative mass-energy that would be needed for metric engineering.  It is clear that further investigation and testing in these areas should be encouraged and funded.

 

 

VI.   Wormholes and Back-Reaction

 

Many scenarios that have been proposed for the use of wormholes in space travel situations turn out to be impossible.  For example, refueling and providing reaction mass to a starship through an on-board wormhole portal would not work.  This is because there are rules derived from general relativity about wormhole care and feeding that come under the general heading of “back reaction”32.  Wormhole back reaction is in essence the changes required in wormhole-portal characteristics (mass-energy, momentum, charge, angular momentum) so as to preserve all of the local conservation laws.

Because of wormhole back reaction, it is not possible to change the amount of conserved quantities in the local space region in the vicinity of either of the two wormhole mouths.  If an electric charge disappears into a wormhole mouth, the entry mouth becomes electrically charged with the just quantity of electric charge that passed through it.  The charge has disappeared through the wormhole portal, but has been replaced by a charge on the wormhole portal itself (think of the lines of electric flux threading the wormhole and stuck there by topology).  Similarly, if a mass goes through, the entry mouth becomes more massive.  If a high momentum particle goes through, the entry mouth acquires that momentum and is pushed forward.  And if a spinning flywheel goes through, the entrance mouth will acquire an angular momentum in the direction of the flywheel spin.  In this way, the local mass-energy, charge, momentum, and angular momentum in the vicinity of the wormhole entry mouth do not change.  No mass-energy, charge, momentum, or angular momentum can magically appear or disappear.  The wormhole entrance mouth itself takes up the slack.

 

Similarly, if a positive electric charge emerges from the wormhole’s exit mouth, the mouth acquires an equal and opposite charge, so that the net charge in the region does not change.  The charges cancel to zero because there was no charge in the region before the appearance of the emerging charge.  An emerging massive particle similarly causes the exit mouth to lose mass-energy, and an emerging high momentum particle gives the exit mouth a recoil momentum in the opposite direction.  This is how back reaction works.  The local situation with conserved quantities before wormhole transits must be the same as the local situation after wormhole transits.

The effect of back-reaction in changing the mass of a wormhole mouth raises a flag of caution.  The wormhole of interest is presumed to be stabilized against its intrinsic tendency to collapse and close off.  This stabilization may be affected or even destroyed  by back reaction effects.  How massive can the mass-gaining wormhole mouth become, and how small the can mass-losing wormhole mouth be allowed to become before stability is lost.  Can the exit mouth’s mass go to zero?  Can it go negative?  Managing the masses (and other conserved quantities) could set important limits on the use of wormholes, even if we could find a way to produce and stabilize them.

 

 

VII.  Sending Wormholes to the Stars

 

Now I want to turn to a scheme for reaching the stars well within human lifetimes, using accelerated wormhole portals.  I discussed this scheme briefly during the panel discussion that ended the Exotic Technologies section of the 2011 100 Year Starship Symposium33.  It is, as far as I know, a new and unprecedented scheme for “ship-less” space travel that I invented and first published in one of my Analog columns in May-199034 and followed up in a May-2012 column35.

Even if we assume that we have been able to produce a wormhole that was stabilized by one of the schemes discussed above, each wormhole portal or mouth would presumably be surrounded by massive machinery, cryostats, power cables, etc., and the curvature of space in the vicinity of the aperture might create tidal forces that make it impossible for a space traveler to survive wormhole passage.  However, Matt Visser has metric-engineered a different solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity from that to Morris, Thorne, and Yurtsever, in which the wormhole is stabilized by another artifact of general relativity, a negative-tension cosmic string36.  Such an object would be self contained, have no dangerous space curvature except near the cosmic string surfaces, and could, in principle, be very large or very small, even down to the Planck-length scale.  A Visser wormhole might also occur naturally in the aftermath of the Big Bang, since both of its components are GR solutions.  We can also hypothesize that if there were passive stability problems with a Visser wormhole, it might be dynamically stabilized externally by an active negative feedback system acting directly on and through one of the wormhole mouths.

Let us assume that we have the capability of producing such Visser wormholes and controlling their size.  If we keep a wormhole mouth microscopic in mass and size, it behaves much like a fundamental particle with a very large mass, perhaps somewhat in excess of the Planck mass of  21.8 micrograms.  For the purposes of calculation, let us assume that we can produce a stabilized microscopic wormhole with a mass of, say, ten Planck masses or 218 micrograms.

Now, we take the two wormhole mouths of this object and thread lines of electrical force through them, until we have passed about 20 coulombs of charge through the  wormhole.  This can be done, in principle, with a 20 microampere electron beam passing through the wormhole for about 12 days.  The result is that the wormhole mouth will now have the same charge-to-mass ratio as a proton and will behave like a proton in the electric and magnetic fields of a particle accelerator.  (We note that such an object would have to have some minimum radius, because if the electric field at the throat was too strong, it would pull positrons out of the vacuum and reduce the charge by field emission.)

Now we transport what we will henceforth call the “traveling wormhole mouth” to Meyrin, Switzerland near Geneva and put it into CERN’s new Large Hadronic Collider (LHC) there.  The other wormhole mouth remains in our laboratory, along with various stabilizing and steering equipment (described later).  We assume that by the time that we are able to do this, the LHC will have achieved its full design capacity and will be able to accelerate each of its colliding proton beams to 7 TeV (7 x 1012 electron volts).  We use the LHC to accelerate the wormhole mouth to the same energy per unit rest mass as a 7 TeV proton, extract the beam that contains it, point it at a star of interest, and send it on its way.  (Presumably, we would do this in an operation with a number of wormhole-mouths pointed at a selection of candidate stars that might have earth-like planets in orbit around them.)

A proton with a total energy of 7.0 TeV will have a Lorentz gamma factor (g = [1-(v/c)2]  = E/M) of 7,455.  The accelerated wormhole mouth will have the same Lorentz factor.  This is the factor by which the total mass-energy E of the proton moving at this high velocity v exceeds its rest mass M.  It is also the factor by which time dilates, i.e., by which the clock of a hypothetical observer riding on the proton would slow down.  The wormhole is traveling at a velocity that is only a tiny fraction less than the speed of light, so it travels a distance of one light-year in one year.  However, to an observer riding on the wormhole mouth, because of relativistic time dilation the distance of one light year is covered in only 1/7,455 of a year or 70.5 minutes.

Moreover, back on Earth if we peek through the wormhole mouth at rest in our laboratory, we see the universe from the perspective of an observer riding on the traveling wormhole mouth.  In other words, in 70.5 minutes after its launch from CERN, through the wormhole we will view the universe one light year away.  Later, in 11.7 hours we will view the surroundings 10 light-years away.  In 4.9 days, we will view the surroundings 100 light years away.  And so on.

This is a remarkable result.  How is it possible that, if the traveling wormhole mouth requires 100 years, as viewed from Earth, to travel 100 light years, we can view its destination as observers looking through the wormhole in a bit less than 5 days?  It is because, as pointed out by Morris, Thorne and Yurtserver7, the special relativity of time dilation makes a wormhole with one high-velocity mouth into a time machine.  The wormhole mouth, which from our perspective has taken 100 years to reach a point 100 light years away, connects back in time to its departure point only 5 days after it left.  In effect, it has moved 100 light years at a speed of 7,455 c.

But could the traveling wormhole mouth be aimed so accurately from its start at CERN that it might it actually pass through another star system many light years away, to survey its planets, etc.?  And could it stop when it got there?   The fortunate answer is yes.

Momentum back reaction can be used to steer the traveling wormhole mouth.   The direction of travel, as viewed through the wormhole, can be monitored.  Course corrections can be made by directing a high-intensity light beam through the laboratory based wormhole mouth at right angles to the direction of travel.  The beam will emerge from the traveling wormhole mouth “sideways” giving it momentum sideways momentum in the other direction.  The exit mouth will lose a bit of mass-energy in this process, but it will also be gaining some mass energy as interstellar gas passes through it and emerges from the laboratory wormhole mouth.  We note that, in terms of momentum change vs. mass gain of the wormhole mouth, the use of light is preferable to high energy particles, even though the momentum carried by light is only its energy divided by the speed of light, because it keeps the wormhole mass gain/loss small per unit momentum change.

Assuming precision steering can be accomplished by applying such momentum changes, stopping is not too difficult.  The exit mouth will still have the large electric charge used for acceleration in the LHC and consequently will lose energy rapidly by ionizing interactions as it passes through any gas.  It can be steered to make passes through the upper atmospheres of planets or to have grazing collisions with atmosphere of the star itself, until its great initial velocity has been dissipated.  In this process, considerable mass will pass through the traveling mouth, and it will gain this mass-energy by back reaction.  This can be compensated by sending low-velocity mass through in the other direction.  The large charge can be reduced at the same time by sending charged particles through.

The decelerated wormhole mouth can tour the star system, propelled by high momentum beams sent through the stay-at-home mouth in the laboratory.  Such steering will tend to reduce the wormhole mass, partially compensating for the mass-gain it received in decelerating and perhaps in sampling planetary atmospheres.

Now that the wormhole mouth has arrived at the star system of interest, a survey of the planets can begin.  We assume that we have laboratory control of the diameter of the wormhole mouth, and that it can be enlarged to a diameter that is convenient for sampling.  If a habitable planet is found, the wormhole mouth can be brought to its surface, and samples can be extracted through the wormhole and analyzed, (perhaps sending compensating mass back in the other direction to keep the wormhole mouth masses in balance).

Ultimately, when the survey is complete, the wormhole can be expanded, permitting robot precursors, planetary explorers, colonists, and freight to move through.  Again, the mass of the wormhole mouths would have to be managed, moving equal masses in the two directions during wormhole transits, perhaps by sending compensating masses of water through pipes.  This scheme could allow very rapid travel to and colonization of various star systems containing earth-like planets.  Thus, if stable wormholes are possible at all, they may represent a path to the stars that would sweep away many of our previous concepts and prejudices about how the stars can and should be reached.

 

Is there any problem with causality created by using what is in essence a time machine to reach the stars?  Perhaps.  The issue is whether a timelike loop can be established.  Although the space-time interval from some event at the distant star to the observation of that event on Earth, as viewed through the wormhole, represents two-way communication across a space-like separation, there is no causality problem because there is no loop.

However, a causality problem could arise if similar but independent wormhole connections were established with accelerated wormhole mouths sent from the distant star system back to Earth, or even to another star system that had been similarly contacted by the Earth.  In that case, transit through one wormhole followed by the other would constitute a timelike loop.  Stephen Hawking has suggested that Nature will prevent the establishment of any timelike loop through an exponential rise in vacuum fluctuations that would destroy some elements of the incipient loop37.  Thus, an attempt to set up the second link might result in an explosion.  The moral is that such wormhole connections must originate from only one central cite.  Any attempt at replication from another site might lead to disaster.

The scheme described above focuses on reaching “local” stars, i.e., those in our galaxy and does not take into account the intrinsic accelerating expansion of the universe.  One of my Analog readers, Tom Mazanec, argued that by the time we are actually able to manipulate micro-wormholes as if they were fundamental particles, we might have already built particle accelerators that could accelerate protons to far higher energies the 7 TeV available from the LHC.  We might contemplate reaching huge Lorentz factors that could allow us to probe very remote parts of the universe where the recession velocity from cosmological expansion becomes important.  We might even contemplate approaching the redshift horizon, beyond which a part of the universe is supposed to be unreachable.  In that region of near-light-speed recession, the wormhole would eventually match velocities with the receding region until it was at rest with respect to the average matter resident there.  It could never actually reach the redshift horizon from here.  However, we might contemplate setting up operations at this edge of the redshift horizon and building a new particle accelerator to shoot wormholes out to the new redshift horizon appropriate to that region of the universe.  In that way, we might step our way to otherwise unreachable parts of the universe.

This brings us to a variation of the famous Fermi Paradox: if interstellar wormhole transport is possible, shouldn’t the technologically advanced civilizations of our galaxy already be sending tiny accelerated wormhole portals in our direction? Then, where are they?

Perhaps they are already here. Cosmic ray physicists have occasionally observed strange super-energetic cosmic ray detection events, the so-called “Centauro Events”38.  These are cosmic ray particles with incredibly high energies that, when striking Earth’s upper atmosphere, produce a large shower of particles that contains too many gamma rays and too few muons, as compared to more normal cosmic ray shower events. Despite many attempts, the Centauro Events presently lack any explanation based on any known physics.  However, an accelerated wormhole mouth with a large electric charge should have a large gamma-ray to muon production ratio in such collisions, since it would have large electromagnetic interactions but should have no strong or weak interactions with the matter with which it collided.

Cosmic ray experts conventionally assume that whatever else they are, Centauro Events must be a natural phenomenon, not an artifact of some advanced civilization. But that assumption could be wrong.  It is interesting to contemplate the possibility that some advanced civilization may be mapping the galaxy with accelerated wormhole portals, sending little time-dilated observation points out into the cosmos as peep-holes for viewing the wonders of the universe.  And perhaps, when a particularly promising or interesting scene comes into view, the peep hole is halted and expanded into a portal through which a Visitor can pass.

 

 

VII.  Conclusion

 

The Exotic Technologies track of the 100 Year Starship Symposium, held on Saturday, October 1, 2011, explored some of the aspects of exotic technology that might be used to reach the stars.  Presentations by Millis9, White22, Davis15, Maclay, McCulloch, Christea, Sarfatti, and Olum17, and the panel discussion that followed33, gave a variety of perspectives on the possible use of unconventional technologies to reach the stars, and included some interesting ideas.

In this chapter, I have discussed some of them, and I have extended the discussion in directions that I consider to be the most promising for the application of exotic technologies to the 100 Year Starship Project.  There is much work to be done, but the stars are out there, and we urgently need to find a way to reach them.  Otherwise, all of our eggs remain in a pretty blue basket that has so far undergone at least 60 extinction catastrophes, with more to come.

 

 

 

VIII.  References

 

  1. Gould, Stephen J., Chapter 5 in Perspectives in Evolution, R. Millikan, ed., Sinauer Associates, Inc., Sunderland, MA, (1982).
  2. Cramer, John G., “The Pump of Evolution”, Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine, (January-1985); http://www.npl.washington.edu/AV/altvw11.html.
  3. Cramer, John G., “Artificial Gravity: Which Way is Up?”, Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine, (February-1987); http://www.npl.washington.edu/AV/altvw18.html.
  4. Cramer, John G., “Antigravity Sightings”, Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine, (March-1997); http://www.npl.washington.edu/AV/altvw83.html.
  5. Alcubierre, Miguel  “The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity”. Classical and Quantum Gravity 11 (5), L73–L77 (1994).
  6. Cramer, John G., “The Alcubierre Warp Drive”, Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine, (November-1996); http://www.npl.washington.edu/AV/altvw81.html.
  7. Michael S. Morris, Kip S. Thorne, and Ulvi Yurtsever, Physical Review Letters 61, 1446 (1988).
  8. Cramer, John G., ” Wormholes and Time Machines”, Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine, (June-1989); http://www.npl.washington.edu/AV/altvw33.html.
  9. Millis, Marc G., “Space Drive Physics, Introduction and Next Steps”, paper given at the DARPA/NASA 100 Year Starship Symposium, October 1, 2011.
  10. Einstein, Albert, “Über das Relativitätsprinzip und die aus demselben gezogene Folgerungen,” Jahrbuch der Radioaktivitaet und Elektronik 4 (1907).
  11. Sciama, D. W. “On the Origin of Inertia”, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 113, 34−42 (1953).
  12. Woodward, James F., Foundations of Physics Letters 9, 247-293 (1996).
  13. Buldrini, N. and M. Tajmar, “Experimental Results of the Woodward Effect on a Micro-Newton Thrust Balance”, in Frontiers of Propulsion Science, Progress Series in Astronautics and Aeronautics, 227, eds. M. G. Millis and E. W. Davis, AIAA Press, Reston, VA, pp. 373-389, (2009).
  14. Woodward, James F., private communication (2012).
  15. Davis, Eric, “Space Drive Physics, Introduction and Next Steps”, paper given at the DARPA/NASA 100 Year Starship Symposium, October 1, 2011.
  16. Davis, Eric (private communication, 2012).
  17. Olum, Keith, “Does General Relativity Permit Superluminal Travel?”, paper given at the DARPA/NASA 100 Year Starship Symposium, October 1, 2011.
  18. Hawking, S. W. and G. F. R. Ellis, The Large-Scale Structure of Space-Time, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, pp. 88-91, 95-96, (1973).
  19. Ford, L. H. and T. A. Roman, ” Quantum Field Theory Constrains on Traversable Wormhole Geometries”, Phys.Rev. D53, 5496-5507 (1996); gr-qc/9510071.
  20. Roman, Thomas A.,”Some Thoughts on Energy Conditions and Wormholes”, Proceedings of the Tenth Marcel Grossmann Meeting on General Relativity and Gravitation, September 23, 2004; gr-qc/0409090.
  21. J. F. Woodward, “Twists of fate: Can we make transversable wormholes in space-time?”, Found. Phys. Lett . 10, 153-181 (1997).
  22. White, Harold, “Warp Field Mechanics 101”, paper given at the DARPA/NASA 100 Year Starship Symposium, October 1, 2011.
  23. Cramer, J. G., see reports from CENPA Annual Reports on “Testing Nonlocal Communication”, http://faculty.washington.edu/jcramer/NLS/NL_signal.htm .
  24. White, Harold, private communication (2012).
  25. Einstein, Albert, “Die Grundlage der Allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie”, Annalen der Physik 49, (1916).
  26. Einstein, Albert and Rosen, Nathan, “The Particle Problem in the General Theory of Relativity“. Physical Review 48, 73 (1935).
  27. Fuller, Robert W. and Wheeler, John A., “Causality and Multiply-Connected Space-Time”. Physical Review 128, 919 (1962).
  28. Arnowitt, R., Deser, S. and Misner, C.W., “Gravitational-Electromagnetic Coupling and the Classical Self-Energy Problem”, Physical Review 120, 313 – 320 (1960)
  29. Arnowitt, R., Deser, S. and Misner, C.W., “Interior Schwarschild Solutions and Interpretation of Source Terms”, Physical Review 120, 321 – 324 (1960).
  30. Ford , L. H. and N. F. Svaiter, “Focusing vacuum fluctuations,” Phys. Rev. A 62, 062105 (2000).
  31. Ford, L. H. and N. F. Svaiter, “Focusing vacuum fluctuations. II,” Phys. Rev. A 66, 062106 (2002).
  32. Visser, Matt, Lorentzian Wormholes: From Einstein To Hawking, AIP Series in Computational and Applied Mathematical Physics (1995); ISBN 978-1-56396-394-0.
  33. “Panel  Discussion: Can Exotic Science Lead to Starship Propulsion?”, Participants: J. G. Cramer (moderator), M. G. Millis, H. White, E. Davis, and G. Nordley at the DARPA/NASA 100 Year Starship Symposium, October 1, 2011.
  34. Cramer, John G., ” Wormholes II: Getting There in No Time”, Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine, (May-1990); http://www.npl.washington.edu/AV/altvw33.html.
  35. Cramer, John G., “Shooting Wormholes to the Stars”, Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine, (May-2012); http://www.npl.washington.edu/AV/altvw162.html .
  36. Matt Visser, Physical Review D 39, 3182 (1989).
  37. Hawking, S.W., “Chronology protection conjecture”, Physical Review D 46, 603-611 (1992).
  38. Angelis, Aris, “The mysteries of cosmic rays”, CERN Courier, January 29, 1999, http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/cern/27944.

 

 


THE HERESY OF HUMANISM

Published by Gregory Benford on October 10th, 2015

 

GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT OF

 

THE VOICES OF WONDER:  CONVERSATIONS ON CLASSIC FANTASY, SCIENCE FICTION AND HORROR

by John C. Tibbetts

 

Of all our fictions, there is none so utterly baseless and empty as this          idea that humanity progresses.  The savage’s natural impression is that the world he sees about him was made for him, and that the rest          of the universe is subordinated to him and his world, and that all the spirits and demons and gods occupy themselves exclusively with him and his affairs.  That idea was the basis of every pagan religion, and it is the basis of the Christian religion, simply because it is the foundation of human nature.

Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896)

 

“Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!”

Greg Bear

This book, this colloquy of voices, concludes with a conversation between two of the brightest and most respected  writers and scientists in the current science fiction scene, Gregory Benford (1941-) and Greg Bear (1952-).

Gregory Benford is a physicist, educator, and author and is currently a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine.  His more than twenty novels, include the classic Timescape (1980) and the “Galactic Center Saga” series (including Great Sky River, 1987).  He has won two Nebula Awards, the John W. Campbell Award, and the Australian Ditmar Award.  In 1995 he received the Lord Foundation Award for contributions to science and to the public comprehension of it.

Greg Bear (1952-) is the author of more than thirty books of science fiction and fantasy, including The Forge of God (1987), Songs of Earth & Power (1994), Darwin’s Radio (1999), Darwin’s Children (2003), and, most recently, Quantico (2005) and Mariposa (2009).  He has won two Hugo Awards and five Nebulas for his fiction, and he is one of two authors to win a Nebula in every category.  He has been called the “best working writer of hard science fiction” by The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  His major themes include galactic conflict (the Forge of God series), artificial universes (The Way series), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, 1985 and Darwin’s Radio, 1999).  Bear has served on political and scientific action committees and has advised Microsoft Corporation, the U.S. Army, the CIA, Sandia National Laboratories, Callison Architecture, Inc., Homeland Security, and other groups and agencies.

As both poets and scientists, Bear and Benford are willing and able to address in their own researches and in their stories not only many of the themes, traditions, and styles we have identified as the traditional gothic/science fiction mode—space opera, Faustian pacts, forbidden knowledge, paranoia, parallel worlds, etc.—but also those specters of scientific inquiry first raised by Dr. Frankenstein:  the blurring of the lines between art and science, the emerging studies of nanotechnology, cellular intelligence, artificial universes, new mythologies, the vectors of human genetic and cosmic evolution, and, finally, what Bear and Benford call the “heresy of humanism.”  To quote the words of the eponymous Faust in Goethe’s gothic masterpiece, they confront the ever-growing suspicion that Man is only a Fool

“. . . who squints beyond with  blinking eyes

Imagining his like above the skies.”[1]

Undaunted, however, they would echo Richard Holmes’s statement query at the beginning of this book:  Can there be “a new kind of wonder born out of radical doubt”?[2]

What a profusion of topics Bear and Benford tackle in their freewheeling conversation!  They are among many scientist-writers, such as Arthur C. Clark, Poul Anderson, and Carl Sagan, who have inherited a century of rapidly mounting tensions in the troubled relationships among art, science, and religion.  In his remarkable The Education of Henry Adams (1906), social historian Adams was already expressing doubts about what he had been taught was the unity of a God-centered universe.  Recoiling from the shock of Darwinian theory, he faced a “multiverse” of new forces, the steam engine, electricity, the telephone, the watt, ampere, and erg—forces which couldn’t be measured by the yardsticks of his predecessors.  “Man had translated himself into a new universe,” he wrote, “which had no common scale of measurement with the old.  He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his sense, perhaps even imperceptible to his instruments, but perceptible to each other.”

As a result, Adams predicted, in a new world of science, society, and philosophy Man must turn away from the Virgin and bow down to the Dynamo.[3]

At the time Adams wrote, Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology had already been introduced at the turn of the century.  Einstein was propounding his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905.  The nucleus of the atom was discovered in 1909.  Niels Bohr’s Quantum Physics was formulated in 1926.  The Manhattan Project developed the destructive potential of atomic physics in the early 1940s.  The double helix in the nucleus of the cell was explored in 1953. And subsequently came the sequencing of the genomes of microbes, the polymerase chain reaction, linkages between living human brains and mechanical appendages, even the development of a giant Google search engine that reaches out to the furthest limits of human knowledge.

Doubts, concerns, outright denials of man’s meaningful purpose and place in the universe—in short, the sense of Wonder—are voiced ever more loudly.  During the recent “evolution wars,” for example, Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague, Niles Eldredge, famously critiqued the Darwinian theory of gradual selection by emphasizing the contingent nature of history, the nonadaptive qualities of organisms—“the directionless arrow in a purposeless cosmos.”  While they do not deny that natural selection creates well-adapted organisms, they do object that it works gradually on preexisting structures.  Rather, it moves in “jumps,” punctuated by brief periods of rapid change (“punctuated equilibrium”).  In other words, not everything in nature can be explained through the adaptationist paradigm.  “If we have lost a degree of grandeur for each step of knowledge gained,” writes Gould, “then we must fear Faust’s bargain:  ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’” (14)

Gould response was succinctly formulated in his famous essay, “Modified Grandeur” (1993).[4] He took as his starting point the final lines from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:  “There is a grandeur in this view of life. . . whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.” Darwin had never implied progress as the necessary feature of organic history, pursued Gould; rather Darwin had alleged that Homo sapiens are a “tiny and unpredictable twig on a richly ramifying tree of life—a happy accident of the last geological moment, unlikely ever to appear again if we could regrow the tree from seed” (20).  But here, argues Gould, in words echoing those of astronomer Herschel and poet Percy Shelley more than a century before, lies grandeur [or, I would say, wonder]:  “We can now step off and back—and see nature as something so vast, so strange (yet comprehensive), and so majestic in pursuing its own ways without human interference, that grandeur becomes the best word of all for expressing our interest, and our respect.”  In a similar pronouncement, Carl Sagan has declared:  “No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.”[5]

Where, then, might we find a Creator?  And what about immortality?  Ever since the late 19th century, many esteemed philosophers, biologists, and physicists have boldly tackled the problem.  A few relatively recent examples will suffice.  In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Williams James objected to the Positivist contention that  unverifiable belief is unscientific, illusory, and antiquated nonsense, by famously pronouncing his extrapolation of “The Science of Religion”:  “Facts, I think, are yet lacking to prove ‘spirit return’. . . .  I consequently leave the matter open.”  But, James continued, “For practical life, at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough.  No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.  The existence of the chance makes the difference . . . between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.”[6]  Professor Kenneth R. Miller, for his part, argues that evolution, genetics, and molecular science do indeed support the existence of a Creator.  “A biologically static world,” writes Miller, “would leave a Creator’s creatures with neither freedom nor the independence required to exercise that freedom.  In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are—free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.”[7]  Again turning to Carl Sagan, he suggests that scientific inquiry in itself is “informed worship.”  If a “god” or anything like the traditional sort exists, he continues, “then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god.  We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves.”  However, if such a god does not exist, “then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time.”[8]

And with this new Age of Wonder come new art forms.  Here is another complex, inexhaustible topic.  Suffice to venture just one speculation before turning to Greg Bear and Gregory Benford:  Freeman Dyson suggests that new art forms will be centered on biology and computers.  “If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology,” continues Dyson, “then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants.  This art form, using the biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born.”[9]

Now, let us see what Greg Bear and Gregory Benford have to say about these and many other topics. . .

 

THE CONVERSATION WITH GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

This conversation between Greg Bear and Gregory Benford transpired at the University of Kansas on July 10, 2004.  The occasion was the 2004 John W. Campbell Conference, at which both men received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  I wish to thank James Gunn and Chris McKitterick of the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction for facilitating our meeting.

 

STORYTELLING AND SPACE OPERA
JOHN C. TIBBETTS:  Maybe the best place to start is to talk about storytelling. What lies behind all the scientific and fantastic extrapolation, all the philosophical and religious riddles—is pure storytelling.

 

GREG BEAR:  Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!

 

JT:  And you’ve got characters we get to know, we care about.
GREG BEAR:  That’s what stories are. Stories are people, people who are doing things, doing interesting things. That’s what it’s all about. And you might have a literature of ideas—but who has ideas? People have ideas. They don’t come out of the void.  People have to act on them and to respond to the consequences.

 

BENFORD: Yes, of course.

 

JT: The scientific background, though, that you guys bring to your stories, do you see this as representative of some new voices in science fiction?

 

BEAR: We’re still young Turks!

 

JT: Young Turks, I like that.  Maybe, it’s hard for us to read pure “space opera” anymore, since we know now that a solid scientific basis can still provide a good rattling story.

 

BEAR: I still write space opera. Anvil of Stars is space opera, it’s just very sophisticated space opera.

 

JT: Was so-called space opera a big influence on you both?

 

BENFORD: Oh, sure, it has been for me. The novel I’m just finishing I hope this week, called The Sunborn [published 2005] is about interplanetary exploration, a thing that’s almost entirely neglected now because we think we understand the solar system. But the bulk of the action occurs out at the orbit of Pluto, which, of course, we actually don’t know much about. And it’s an attempt to envision a different form of life-form that could inhabit the cold and the dark.  But “space opera” is a term I’ve never liked, because opera after all in a sense can be about grand things; the music is grandiose; and most of it is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll!  I think the new resurrection of space opera over the last ten years is in part an unconscious reflex, given that so much earth-bound science fiction concerns a future in which everyone seems to believe things are going to get worse. And it’s hard to be optimistic for many people because of an old human habit—it’s always easier to see the problems than the solutions.

 

JT: It’s easier to dramatize them, too.

 

BENFORD: Right, yeah. It’s always easier to be downbeat in the same way that it’s harder to be funny than it is to be solemn.  The future, I think, doesn’t have to be dark and depressing. I mean, we’ve obviously got problems.  But I think a lot of them can be met. And people who are now looking out at the beginning of this century and saying, “Gosh, things are going to get a lot worse”—the relevant question is, “Yeah, for whom? Because, for many people on this planet, things have always been bad.

 

 

APOCALYPSE AND THE FAMILY OF MAN

JT:  Let’s follow up on this.  Greg, repeatedly you seem to be saying the 20th century has been a disaster, that the 20th century was breeding a kind of contagion.

 

BEAR: I’m afraid I once said that if you study the 20th century long enough, you want to pack a gun!  It’s not a disaster, it’s a challenge. And this is an interesting difference, depending on your perspective. I never regard my books as disaster novels—although sometimes they seem to be.

 

JT:  But in The Forge of God you destroy the Earth!  It’s one of the more sustained and compelling passages of your prose I’ve ever read!  I mean, what were you thinking when you were writing all of this?

 

BEAR: Well, writers are bloody-minded individuals and we have the most fun doing the most horrible things.  I immensely enjoyed Star Wars, the first one, but I realized that you can’t just blow up Alderaan and Princess Leia’s record collection in eight seconds. It’s going to take a while. So as a hard science fiction writer I say, well, what’s that like? And then, as a cinematographer in my brain I’m asking, well, if you’re on the surface of the planet watching this destruction, you can actually survive long enough to see amazing things. Absolutely astonishing things.  It would be almost worthwhile to watch these things happen. And for me that moment comes when our main character, I think it’s Edward, looks up to the east and sees the North Atlantic plate rising up. Or the North American plate rising up. And at that point you know you’re dead. Why? Because as a physicist if it falls back, the release of energy will heat up the landscape around you and you’re just a fragile ball of water, right? But at that point you’ve seen something no one has ever seen in the history of life on earth. And that’s the combined horror and the exaltation. It’s like a deer standing before a forest fire.

 

JT: But is there an exaltation in you as you’re writing it?

 

BEAR: Yes, in the sense of, I’m gonna make people feel extraordinary emotions. I think every artist does that.

 

JT:  By contrast, the apocalypse at the end of Dead Lines is so, well, gentle . . .

 

BEAR: Yeah, well. It’s just about people.

 

JT: Apocalypses come in all shapes and sizes.

 

BEAR: As I get older I’m less interested in blowing up the earth and, you know, just kinda figuring out what being around people means to me.  I mean, I write something like that and they call you a cannibal for the rest of your life!  Think of  apocalypse as more of a metaphor for evolutionary progression, or change.  In Darwin’s Radio I write about sudden bursts in human speciation, the sort of thing Stephen Jay Gould has called  “punctuated equilibrium.”  And we have the stress that results from trying to be the best we can be in spite of all our problems—and that allows us to naturally produce better children, capable of handling those stresses. That’s not a disaster story.  It’s a story that maybe we have gone past the point of our competence.  But is that sad?  That’s what happens with every set of parents and children. If parents don’t want their children to do better and be better, are they very good parents?  So my whole approach in something like Darwin’s Radio is, yes, these kids in the story are slightly more competent than us at living in a world that we made, perhaps; but we don’t know, they’re an experiment. They’re a very young experiment.

 

JT: And an interesting subtlety is that the parents, in the process, are transformed themselves. They now undergo an evolutionary change.

 

BEAR: Isn’t that what happens when you have kids? It’s all a metaphor for the simple act of having kids. Having kids is optimism about the future. They’re different from you, they think somewhat different from you, they are better adapted, we hope, to the world you created.

 

JT: And you end the book with the parents seemingly estranged, now, from each other.

 

BEAR: You see more of that in the sequel, Darwin’s Children. Again, this is because it’s difficult to have children. It’s painful and difficult and involves deep surveillance of emotions and conflicting ideas about how to raise kids. But always there’s the love throughout.  Even when the parents are separated in Darwin’s Children, there’s that continuing sense that this is the only partner you’re ever going to have that makes any sense for you. And later, in Darwin’s Children, they’re working separately. But having kids is hard. It causes arguments, it causes debates, it causes reassessments, changes the marriage. And that’s just part of the natural truth of what it means to have kids.

 

JT: I hadn’t realized that you’re using a theory like “punctuated equilibrium” as a metaphor for child rearing. . . !  Gregory Benford, you also talk about having children in Great Sky River.

 

BENFORD: Oh, right, yeah.

 

JT: Because the relationship between the protagonist and his son is so critical to that book. Now, I’ve not read the two sequels, if sequel is the word.

 

BENFORD: Well, there’s actually three–

 

BEAR: There’s three. Three, altogether. .

 

JT: But again the father-son thing emerges as the real theme, seemingly.

 

BENFORD:  You’re referring to Killeen and his son, Toby.  They and their clan are on the run.  Their planet is threatened with destruction by the cyborg forces.  Well, fathers and sons is one of the great themes of literature, isn’t it? Agamemnon had some things to say about that! Actually, Great Sky River is part of a whole six-book sequence called the Galactic Center series that started back in 1977 with In the Ocean of Night. And it’s really about the skills of us hominids holding things together in the face of imminent annihilation.  They must enter into the scale of understanding that we’re part of an entire galactic order, and that things have been going on a long time before we came on stage—that we’re coming in not in Act One but maybe Act Seventeen of a really long drama.  You have to go back to your basics, and that means that you have to have cultural continuity.  Fathers have to tell sons what it really means to be a man, and how you act in the face of huge difficulties, difficulties that you may not, in fact, be able to surmount.  In Great Sky River human beings are not this “winner” society that we’re used to, they are rats in the wall of a system in which they face intelligences that are not human—in fact they’re machines—that are far, far superior in many ways, and utterly malign.  That’s straight out of Lovecraft, you know?  I wanted to turn on its head the assumption of the centrality of being human, which is so pervasive in human society—you know, “the measure of all things is man.” Well, I call it in my most recent novel Beyond Infinity, the “heresy of humanism.”  It is a heresy to think that humans are central to the larger grand scale of creation, and it will cost you to believe that.

 

BEAR: Arrogance always costs you.  In Blood Music I make it pretty clear that our need to see humanity as the center of the biological universe is as egotistical as the notion we once held that the Earth is the center of the galaxy!  Astronomers from Galileo to Herschel and Hubble and beyond were always telling us that!

 

EVOLUTION AND GALACTIC ECOLOGY

JT:  Something called “galactic ecology” is a concern for both of you.  In particular, Greg, this seems to be one of the messages coming out of The Forge of God.

 

BEAR: Well, I read Benford in my youth!

 

BENFORD: Ha!

 

BEAR: And it seems like this is a perfectly reasonable attitude. What Greg is espousing has to be the attitude of the 21st century. And in Forge of God, you really are looking at that large-scale ecology of the galaxy.

 

JT: I had not run into the term “galactic ecology” before. Could you give me a quick explanation?

 

BEAR: There’s always been this question, Why aren’t the Aliens here yet? You know, here we are sending out signals, but we don’t hear any signals coming back.  And my one answer that came back to me loud and clear was, Well, you’re birds cheeping in the forest from the nest, and there are snakes out there, and they’re going to crawl up the tree and eat you if you keep chirping your little heart out!  And that seemed like a good story idea, a traditional science fiction story idea of disastrous encounters.  That’s the old gothic theme, and you see it a lot in writers from Mary Shelley to Lovecraft—man’s hubris, you know, risking disaster by courting unknown monsters.  I mean, why are you announcing your presence when you’re weak? And if you think there’s no life out there, then, okay, we’re safe. But if there is life out there, then you have to run with what you know about life, which is that life has both predators and partners.  The real metaphor of life is how things change, how they communicate with each other and how they change. And that’s evolution. And we’ve had many fits and starts in trying to reach this understanding. We’ve tried to isolate ourselves as angelic intelligences, apart from biology, except for those damned urges, which just can’t be overcome.  And then we get all this persiflage about good and evil and cruelty and all that stuff. It’s all part of a natural system.  There may indeed be teleological and intelligently directed evolution, but we don’t need to blame it on God.  In its own way, DNA itself may be goal-seeking and problem-solving.  The fact is, we’re in pain, so we object to it. That’s perfectly natural. But if you’re going to talk about the large scale stuff, you have to overcome your sense of pain long enough to realize. . .  why? What’s the process here? If there is no process, there’s certainly a development, and if there’s development going on, where is it headed? If it’s not headed any place you would particularly like to call progressive, then why is it not fitting your particular desires and needs? Why is the universe not catering to us? This is the scientific principle:  the universe does not cater to you.

 

JT:  But you just said it might be in the DNA itself.

 

BEAR: In Darwin’s Children I have it both ways. I say, look, we don’t understand jack about what’s going on here, but it’s obvious that there can be intelligent design from within your own genome, spread around a neural network of different species, different animals, different ecosystems. That is the first time this has ever been, I believe, cogently expressed in that form—that this is internal creativity, it’s obviously operating within the genome.  Now the genome is a self-directing system reacting to changes, responding to the outside environment in very significant ways. So given that, yeah, we’re looking at a universe that has both internal design; and then the big question from outside, is that all there is? Is that all there is? And science at that point kind of stops off and says, well, it’s all we can measure.

 

JT: I hear a song by Peggy Lee in my head!

 

BEAR: Yeah. “Is that all there is, my friend?” But seriously, it’s really a huge question, because that’s a question of where science and faith collide. And what is faith? What is imagination?  What is poetry and music?  I tried to talk about their importance to our sense of humanity in my Songs of Earth & Power.  They get so many people who are in pain through a hard day or a hard month or a hard year. Why? Because they just know there’s something better out there. And as a biological thing, that makes things like faith essential to survival. Is it an illusion? That’s a big question. If it’s an illusion, it’s still essential to survival, so you can’t just pierce the illusion willy-nilly. But what if there is something going on? What if you’re receiving these messages from a thing outside of process? And you’re a scientist, and your whole upbringing is that this is impossible.

 

ART AND SCIENCE

JT:   Science and faith. . . You also mentioned Art?

 

BEAR:  Yes, in Songs of Earth & Power [1994] I talk about music and poetry.  Mahler and Mozart both show up at the end!

 

JT:  You’re not kidding!  There they are—characters in your story!  The sheer audacity of it took my breath away!  They’re not dead, exactly, and not—

 

BEAR:  They’ve been, well, delayed, you could say.  Consider:  Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony.  I asked myself. . . Why???  Because when you reach the Tenth  Symphony, like Mahler, you’ve acquired a level of wisdom that creates a song of power. And in my book the elves—I call them the Sidhe—don’t want humans to achieve that. There’s forces that will come in to thwart that.  I mean, it’s a very paranoid vision, the whole gothic thing.  Think of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem:  The man in gray shows up.  Who was the man in gray? Salieri?  A mysterious patron?  A “Person from Porlock.?”  Well, I do have a Person from Porlock in my book!  Remember him?—he’s the person who “interrupted” Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” . . .  and maybe he’s the person who blocked the finish of Mozart’s Requiem.  There are so many instances in poetry and music and literature like this that are really interesting, because man is kept from achieving a higher being.  And you could take six or seven of those instances and string them into a story; and I did. I’m not sure if Borges actually wrote an essay on the mystery of interruption, but he could have.

 

JT:  Seems like he did on everything else!

 

BEAR: Yeah. And that’s why I think that these two novels [The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage] are kind of extended combinations of George MacDonald and Jorge Luis Borges and, you know, half a dozen other fantasy writers.

 

JT: George MacDonald. Yes.  Lilith absolutely blew my mind.

 

BEAR: It’s great, isn’t it? Christian surrealism!

 

JT:  I mean, it’s a leap of imagination that just left me—

 

BEAR: Yeah.

 

JT:  —stunned.

 

BEAR:  I mean, where do all of our imaginations begin?  Is it that reality is menacing, supportive, or a combination of the two? And our deepest fears come from trying to be a kid and get along in a world you don’t understand. And when you’re a baby there are lots of things you see that you don’t know whether they’re real or not. You have no context—

 

JT:  So where does Art with a capital “A” come in?  And the Artist?  Gregory Benford, you talk about an awful creature called the “Mantis” in Great Sky River.  It is an “artist”. . . sort of, but a very perverse one.  It does bridge the gap between mechanical apparatus and organic life.  Is that the height of the artistic frontier, like the Mantis claims?

 

BENFORD: Yes, well, we don’t think of ourselves as malleable material?—as suitable material for the artworks of higher and more powerful being.  But of course, the deer whose antlers are on the wall don’t think that either!  I thought a way to show the true position of humans on this scale was to show that “cosmic artists” would treat them as mere material, and that these others would regard the complexities of human society and our way of perceiving the world as just grist for their mill.  Toward the end of Great Sky River, a human stumbles upon this gallery that the Mantis—

 

JT:  —horrific stuff.

 

BENFORD:  —has made up. And he’s taken human beings, their bodies, and made them into festooned works, without any consideration of the point of view of the humans at all. And so all these grotesque things are created by another intelligence for aesthetic purposes that appear to us to be horrific.

 

BEAR: Satanic, at the very least.

 

BENFORD: Yes, satanic.

 

JT:  While reading that, I kept thinking of the hideous reconstructions from human bones into chairs and tables you see in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Well—

 

JT: Which is another kind of corrupt or perverted art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Actually, I haven’t seen that movie. But it sounds like the same thing.

 

BEAR: Hannibal Lecter’s cuisine applied to furniture!

 

BENFORD: And you think of the Nazis who made lamp shades out of human flesh. Anything that reduces humans to the status of object is inherently insulting and horrific. And yet that attitude we have is part of the defensive posture of a species that has been winning for so long in the evolutionary lottery that maybe we’ve forgotten that we may not be the lords of creation.

 

JT: Well, what about maybe some more benign examples of art-making?

 

BENFORD: Yes. Artists in the future would regard our preconceptions or our perceptions of the world as suitable material.  They would create effects that appear to be illusions, exploiting our habits of breaking down information to produce things that are not real, but which we perceive as being real because they, in a sense, have subverted our visual processing power.  You perceive it two ways, like an ambigram.

 

BEAR: Like the faces in the vase.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BENFORD: That shows that there’s an ambiguity in the way we interpret visual information. You can make up images that you can see two ways. Well, what about three-dimensional objects you can see two ways? And that are moving, so it makes you see things that don’t exist. But your own processing power is doing the work of creating the illusion. That’s an art form that I think will come about.

 

JT: Do other science fiction writers write about the arts very much?

 

BEAR: Well, William Rotsler has a novel, Patron of the Arts, where he envisioned an artistic form called the “sensatron.”  Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book about a kind of cosmic orchestra [A Memory of Whiteness]. And Roger Zelazny wrote a lot about music, religion, art work….

 

BENFORD: Science is an art form?

 

BEAR: Yeah. It’s a way of artificially putting  things into context that you didn’t understand before.

 

BENFORD: Well, that’s true.

 

JT: What about aesthetics?

 

BEAR: Aesthetics is a class-based judgment system. For most of the people on this planet, art is amusement, which is something they don’t want to strongly define. It diverts them from their everyday lives. Aesthetics comes in when you have a higher class or educated class that then wants to isolate their attitudes from those of the lower classes. Then you use more high-falutin’ words with Greek contexts, or Roman contexts. Everything else is just—as far as I’m concerned—playing to the groundlings.  We just don’t know it.

 

BENFORD: Hmm. The idea that science is an art work. . . . But art never answers to the necessity of empirical verification.

 

BEAR: Until now.  It’s a constraint upon your behavior. Every art form is an assumption of a philosophy or an attitude that constrains your freedom of motion to do art. So we’re all very amused that chimpanzees can paint but we don’t know what their context is, so they don’t sell for a lot of money.  Okay? But a scientist has a constraint that it has to be outside of just his or her personal relationship with the universe. Other people have to be able to see it and do it over again.

 

BENFORD: And check it.

 

BEAR: And check it. And that’s an art form of the highest caliber. Because it’s a participative art form. It doesn’t just say that only one person can do it, the great genius is the only person who can do this experiment. That might be true of Michelangelo’s David, but it’s not true of Einstein’s relativity or general relativity. We can do that experiment over and over and over again and get similar results. So that’s a real work of art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. But, the trick of course, is that art—science as art—is always provisional. It’s always a partial vision.

 

BEAR: Well, now, that’s an interesting distinction. Art can be a completed vision within the culture. But we still read about great scientific things of the past as completed visions that we have now gone beyond. And I think artists do the same thing.

 

JT: Well, if I understand you guys correctly, then somebody like Rudolf Arnheim talks about art as what he insists should be only a “partial illusion.” In its incompleteness lies its beauty, its importance as art.

 

BENFORD: Sure. The Sistine Chapel is probably the ultimate of what you can do in that direction, and the evidence is that nobody has even attempted anything like that in a very long time. You can say that of Baroque music. How come people aren’t writing Baroque music now? I think it’s because they feel that in some sense it’s exhausted, or it’s complete. I’ve always wondered about that. Remember, Prokofiev when he wrote a classical symphony, he actually couldn’t do it totally in earnest. That is, it’s got funny parts.

 

JT: It still has his harmonic vocabulary.

 

BENFORD: Yes, right.

 

BEAR: He’s got a wider range of emotions he can deal with. He’s not constrained by the church, or by the upper classes who are his patrons.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: Not so much constrained. He still is, and a lot of composers always have been, but it’s not as bad as Haydn or Bach.

 

BENFORD: Well, was it Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as comedy? But art can do the same thing. You start to make, in a sense, make fun, or make fun with, the modes and mannerisms of the past.

 

BEAR: Which I think scientists do in a subtle way, too. It’s less “ha ha” funny than, “You really goofed up your experiment, here’s how you do it better!” And it’s a constant sense of criticism of improvement far more disciplined than any art form I know of.

 

JT: But mistakes in art can be very important. Mistakes in a scientific procedure can be disastrous.

 

BEAR: But you learn from them.

 

BENFORD: Yes….

 

JT: But we don’t treasure the mistakes. I mean, John Marin’s watercolors are precious because the globs of water dripped down across the surface and he kept them there. He didn’t correct them, you know.

 

BENFORD: But it’s true that you learn from “mistakes.” The classic example I would venture is that, when Einstein added a constant to his general field equations to make the solution for the universe to be static, he didn’t realize that it was static but if you tipped it a little bit it was unstable, it would either contract or expand. He regarded that as a huge error. However, we now know the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and one way of looking at that is to say that that constant is real and is now driving the expansion. So it’s a mistake. It starts to fix a problem, then it looks like it’s wrong, and now it’s back again in a different guise.

 

BEAR: And in twenty years it might be wrong again. ‘Cause the whole Big Bang thing is starting to look a little gnarly, you know, we’re starting to get some ideas that maybe this isn’t what we should be looking at, because it’s getting really complicated. So it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of people who are educating their children, basically, to carry on with the mission, and to criticize them down the road. Very few artists do this. But scientists do.

 

BENFORD: That’s true. It’s the quality of self-criticism that makes science become the standard for believability in our society. After all, now since everybody has Adobe Photoshop, you can’t even believe what you see.

 

BEAR: And with your illusions we couldn’t even believe what we see in real life, so.

 

BENFORD: Seeing is no longer believing and it’s going to take a long time for our culture to quite realize that.

 

BEAR: What I found interesting was that, for many scientists, sometimes seeing was still not believing, even under a scientific context. You know, because it doesn’t fit in to the past experience. So, you have spiritual experiences, they are explained in non-spiritual ways by the hardcore scientists. Rather than saying, I do not know, a spiritual experience is relegated to being pure psychology. That is, of meaningless value because it refers to something outside of the context of science that we know today.

 

JT: I’m thinking, too, of Robert Bresson, the French filmmaker, who will bring about a spiritual condition, but under the most bland, inane, uninflected kind of camera work, viewing angle, and performance.

 

BEAR: Right. Isn’t that how it happens in real life? You know, it doesn’t come with glorious Max Steiner music in the background and you’re on the cliffs of France staring down at the water and suddenly God touches you. Usually happens when you’re in the bathtub, or driving a car, or, you know, doing something else. So, epiphany is as rude as any other thing in reality.

 

JT:  You take music into other directions, Greg.  You mentioned earlier Songs of Earth &  Power, where you write about composers whose music has profound effects, both in this world and in other worlds.

 

BEAR:  Yes, I talk about music as a kind of magical incantation, like Arno Waltiri’s “Infinity Concerto.”  Performing it can risk apocalypse.  Music as a bridge that melds worlds.  I’m afraid that combination of music and magic has confused some readers, though.

 

JT:  But didn’t the German Romantics, from Wackenroder to Schumann say the same thing?  But you don’t stop there.  There’s your story, “Tangents,” which is rather like a cross between Henry Kuttner and Albert Einstein!

 

BEAR:  There was this keyboard hookup whose music called forth 4th dimensional creatures—

 

JT:  I thought immediately of Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”—

 

BEAR:  —And it was fun to think what the hypersphere of the 4th dimension would look like if it intruded into our 3-dimensional space!  But you didn’t mention Blood Music.  My character can hear a kind of “internal music,” of the operations inside his blood.    Which is rhythm.  It’s coordinated rhythm.  It’s a communication that is everywhere; it completely absorbs us, consumes us. We can’t arise out of it. So when we’re talking to each other, we don’t perceive the language we’re using. And when, you know, genes are talking to each other, what’s the context there? How many layers of translation did they go through? When particles are talking to each other, in my crackpot theory of physics, which I borrow from four or five other physicists, what are particles talking to each other about? And on what level is it constrained? So I’m just very interested in all the connectedness and the talking going on in the universe.

 

JT: Like in your most recent book, Dead Lines [2004].  All kinds of “talking” going on there!  You have these wireless phones that open gateways to fiendish creatures.

 

BEAR:  The reviews called it a ghost story, a fantasy. I think it’s a science fiction novel. It’s just that science is not thought to cross over into that particular thing because it’s constrained from it by cultural prejudices. But the other thing is, it’s very tough to replicate ghosts. Can’t do it. It used to be very, very tough to replicate lightning. Now we can do it. What if there’s a technological change such that you could start to study these phenomena?

 

JT: These technological  changes are Pandora’s boxes

 

BEAR: They really could be, yeah.

 

JT: There’s always this cautionary element you see in the gothic tradition.  It keeps popping up. Even in the most modern kind of science fiction we still go back to the old days when Scientists Should Not Venture into the Forbidden Zones. That is such a deeply-rooted fear that we have, still.

 

BENFORD: Well, particularly I think it’s an expression of a deeply puritanical impulse in Western society, particularly in the United States. And it has huge costs and policy implications. Here, let me give you an example. We’re all worried about the “greenhouse” problem. But we think only in terms of using state power to stop people from burning fossil fuels. We don’t think about all the other terms in the equation, the terms of the temperature of the earth. For example, could we build buildings with white roofs or generate more cloud cover to reflect more sunlight? Or, how about pulling carbon out of the air, which agriculture does every year, and then keeping it out of the air? Because, after all, the bulk of everything in a farm is waste product, and you let it lie in the fields and it rots and returns to the air. It’s a big fraction of the carbon that cycles in and out every year. We don’t think about grabbing that and, say, sequestering it somewhere. I’ve written a couple of papers for Climate Change, an academic journal about this. The puritan impulse is to focus on our own evil. Bad people! Don’t burn fuels! Instead of saying, hey, there are other things here that we could be doing and we don’t have to stop guys from burning coal in China. So there’s a cost to these preconceptions.

 

JT: It also—it’s so healthy, too—God knows I’m going to quote Derrida—but to de-center our convictions, our monomanias, about these things—consider their oppositions, consider the gradations, consider how there are others that can happen, that can work.

 

BENFORD: Well, it’s natural to the species to divide problems into twos. I mean, our way of suggesting alternatives is to say “on the other hand”. We have two hands so we think there are two points on an issue. Not so. Nature does not know this, right, and therefore in the greenhouse problem, there’s three, four different things that we could do. But we don’t even suggest or study them being done, because everybody’s fixated on essentially a moral issue. Bad species. Shouldn’t burn all that coal.

 

BEAR: Oh, it’s Biblical. It’s very Biblical. The whole notion of good and evil and the dichotomy between being the stewards of the earth and, you know, being the exploiters of the earth. It’s a dichotomy. But as Gregory says, not a real dichotomy. There are many solutions. All of which cause great controversy in a society that doesn’t understand how science works to start with. They’re afraid of science.  There are two reasons for this. One, I think because of World War I. But two, we just have people who are not numeric thinkers. They don’t get along with numbers very easily. Like people who can’t read very well. They have a hard time getting into books. Okay, so our society is through the way we teach and the way we discuss these issues, and the way science relies almost entirely on mathematics, it’s very hard for some people to get. Probably well over half don’t get that kind of thinking. And it scares them. So that breaks down. It’s a biological, epistemological breakdown into—what would you call the biology of education? That’s not epistemology. What would biology of education be?

 

BENFORD: I don’t know if there’s a term for the biology—

 

BEAR: But to that extent we need to improve the way we teach people, and perhaps change the way we use language to get ideas across. And that’s a long-term prospect.

 

BENFORD: The great thing about reading is, it’s the best way to get into somebody else’s mind. And it’s unfortunate—

 

BEAR: It’s better and more intimate than making love.

 

BENFORD: But it’s still verbal. And the news of a couple of days ago, the study done by the U.S. census, shows that reading is declining in all age groups just about the same amount in the United States, and has fallen about ten percent in the last fifteen years, is very bad news for the long-term stewardship of this society.

 

BEAR: Well, again, I think it’s part of that long-term problem that text has been difficult for many people to access. And movies and other things are starting to eat our lunch. But they’re eating our lunch at a much more diverse table, because there are far fewer films than there are books. Far fewer television shows, they’re far more expensive to make. So the media–even games, comic books, all these things are much more expensive to do.

 

JT: And each new technology engenders a new kind of nostalgia for what came before. Your character in Dead Lines loves LP records–

 

BEAR:  Well, yeah, but so do I.

 

JT:  —for example.

 

BEAR: I’m getting old that way.

 

JT: You even overtly praise the sound quality of an LP.

 

BEAR: Well, that’s actually—even Hollywood recognizes that, if you go back to, what is it? The Rock. Nicolas Cage gets this copy of a Beatles album, and he pays a hundred and fifty bucks for it, and his friends sits there and asks him, Well, why? And he says, Well, it sounds better. So even Hollywood knows that.

 

JT: Well, High Fidelity, too, gives that a heavy working-over. John Cusack.

 

BEAR: That’s about to change, though. Actually, SACD sounds better than LPs. So.

 

BENFORD: But, we’re entering an age in which all of our information is digital but our pleasures are analog. And you’re never going to get away from that analog.

 

JT: I’m not sure if I understood that.

 

BENFORD: Well, all the things that you do with your body are analog, not digital.

 

JT: I guess I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.

 

BENFORD: But everybody’s in love with the digital because it’s new.

 

BEAR: It’s more compact, easier to carry, easy to record, easy to duplicate. There’s no interference from quantum effects, ’cause you just isolate that out.

 

BENFORD: And the way we transmit our genetic info is obviously digital in the sense that DNA has got a fore-coded information system. But the way we think is furiously analogic. Synapses run, and the chemical involvement—Anyone who’s had five martinis knows that your thinking changes for analog reasons, not digital.

 

BEAR: Is it pure anal– It’s not a sine wave. It’s not analog in the sense of a sine wave. It really is some sort of….

 

BENFORD: But thinking is not digital.

 

BEAR: No. No, not at all.

 

BENFORD: And therefore the whole analogy of our thinking to computers is fundamentally false. I mean, we’re actually—even if you wanted to use the analogy, we are self-programming computers. Because we can do things that change the memory. I mean, it’s often said that a memory is never the same the next time, because by accessing it, you alter it. That’s not true of computer files.

 

BEAR: Although, actually, in hard drives apparently it’s getting more and more true that there’s a mathematical algorithm that reconstructs from a very faulty record a perfect replica of what was put in there on your computer hard drive. Because you have to do that, because you’re in such small spaces now that quantum effects are causing corruption to the data.  So you have these mathematical algorithms that quite literally save your butt when you’re storing information.

 

 

 

WRITING AND TEACHING

JT: It must be great to be a student in one of your classes. Are both you guys still teaching?

 

BEAR: He is.

 

BENFORD: Well, I am. I’m a professor at U.C. Irvine.

 

JT: So you haven’t gone to full-time writing?

 

BENFORD: No, I never will. I mean, I’ve always thought it was too dangerous to be a full-time writer. Based on the experience of many of my friends, at least, who fall to alcoholism, bad work habits, drugs, a rather more interesting sex life. . . . But, then, I’ll defer to Greg Bear for that!

 

BEAR: Perversions he doesn’t approve of, so.

 

JT: Or as yet undreamt of.

 

BEAR: Well, those illusions, there we go back to those illusions again. What if your Mantis starts doing sexual experiments?

 

BENFORD: Well, the Mantis does do sexual experiments.

 

JT:  Hmmm.  Now, Greg, how about you—are you teaching at all?

 

BEAR: No, just lecturing off and on. No, teaching is hard work. And also I find that, with teaching, you have to remember how you use your own hundred set of caterpillar legs. And then you think about it, and then you stumble and fall in the ditch the next time you try to dance. So this is a metaphor for saying that, if you teach writing, which is probably what I’d only be qualified to teach, you’ll get in trouble with your own writing. ‘Cause you’re going back over basics all the time. You can glide into that space where, you know, you don’t even think about it.

 

JT: So there’s too much self-consciousness—?

 

BEAR: Imagine a sports figure teaching how to play baseball, or do ping-pong. Or imagine a great ballerina teaching ballet. They usually don’t until after they’ve retired. There’s a reason for that. You’re going over the basics again and again and again. And basics are what you want to forget about when you’re at the top of your form.

 

BENFORD: I would never teach writing precisely because I enjoy the fact that I can do it without thinking about it. That I do it intuitively, and that’s why it’s recreation, and it’s always been easy for me to, say, write novels because it was relaxing. If it became a full-time job I think it would be horrific.

 

BEAR: But how about in science? Does teaching science impede your ability to do theoretical science?

 

BENFORD: You know, I don’t find that it does. I teach plasma physics, astrophysics, cosmology, and it’s pleasant to reexamine the basics. Every once in a while in teaching a course, I’ve gotten an idea for something I could do just because I was forced to revisit the basics and think about them again. Trying to explain something to someone can clarify it to yourself.

 

BEAR: Why isn’t that true about doing writing, then?

 

BENFORD: It’s not true for me because writing is very intuitive for me. It’s like— Suppose someone wanted to say, Tell me how to make love. Well, I might be able to show you, but tell?

 

BEAR: See, he is the Mantis!

 

JT: Well, then you how do you keep close to the scientific community? Do you still maintain a contact there?

 

BEAR: All the time. It’s fun to talk about science.  The thing about scientists is they don’t have a lot of people who are willing to talk to them on a serious and listening level. You know, where you listen to what they’re saying and come back with interesting questions. So science fiction writers kind of often do that. And that makes them great conversation victims for scientists. But we’re willing victims, because we get our story ideas from a lot of those discourses. The other thing about talking to scientists is, science has a personality and a culture, and just as you would have to interview police detectives to understand about, you know, writing mysteries and so on, talking to scientists, you get the feeling of the rhythm of their speech, how they use words, and how they interact with each other that’s essential to creating the characters of the story.

 

BENFORD: Oh, to be sure.

 

 

 

THE SCIENTIST AS HERO

JT:  Gregory Benford, So many of these topics and ideas can be found in your novel, Timescape.  In the first place, it seems to me as a layperson to say a lot about the life of a scientist, particularly the physicist, and the pressures under which scientists operate—all about getting along and getting the grants and the tenure, and all of that kind of thing.

 

BENFORD: Right. I realized somewhere in the late ‘70s that this enormously influential culture had no one writing novels about science and scientists.

 

BEAR: Well, C.P. Snow, in something like The New Men..

 

BENFORD: Right, but who had by the time he started writing novels actually stopped being a scientist. But yes. There are fewer, fewer examples. And I thought, wow, what a rich ground. And the most exciting thing to me in science is discovery. And discovery of the new is the cutting edge of science fiction, in my opinion. You cannot do that which you cannot first imagine. And that’s true of scientists, too. So scientists have to have imagination. They are not just bookkeepers.

 

JT: Icarus flew long before we had airplanes.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: The difference between Snow and Benford is that, in Snow’s books, nothing significant is discovered. It’s all about  the process of the characters involved. It’s a social priority. There’s not really a deep novel about discovery. Timescape is all about something really cool being discovered. And that’s kind of difference between the literary attitude that man is the measure of all things—and therefore we shall write about man—and the science fiction novel which says that while man’s interesting, the universe is terrific!  So what is man going to measure and discover?

 

BENFORD: Right. The interesting thing is that interface between us and the strange. ‘The universe is fundamentally alien and we just keep trying to domesticate it. But there’s always an alien boundary.

 

JT:  There’s time-travel paradoxes aplenty here.  It’s like Chris Marker’s La Jetee, where someone from the future reaches back into the past to alert people to take steps to prevent the disaster threatening the future.  So, we have two time periods, the world of 1963 and of 1998, interacting.  But then, we shift to 1974 and to yet another future time period!  Wow!  I gather that the scientist, Markham, is your kinda guy?

 

BENFORD: Oh yeah. Well, Markham, by no accident, has exactly my biography. And he has my first name. I appear in the novel actually, under two different guises; the other is the California scientist, Gordon Bernstein.  Markham is in 1998 and Gordon is in 1963. You see, it’s all a form of disguised autobiography.  What happens in the last chapter, or I intended to happen, is that Bernstein, in a sense, is in a quantum-mechanical state.  Time is a loop, where cause-and-effect mean nothing.  He sort of is stuck in between, and he becomes aware of how contingent his present is.  And so he goes in and out of states.  I attempted to convey what it would be like if you were subject to a quantum-mechanical state and you flipped between one and the other—

JT:  But here, the switch is between ON and OFF?

BENFORD: Yeah, it’s in between.  But I wanted to evoke just the sensation of feeling that time, or the timescape, was variable, that it rippled and moved, instead of time as this solid object that we think of.  So that’s the aesthetic intention in the last five, six pages of the novel.  It’s the attempt to see time as pliable and to see what it would feel like if it were pliable.

JT: And there’s this wonderful sort of elegiac quality to those final scenes in the dying world of England, when we see Peterson going back to his home, which is now a fortress. But it—and I mean this as an absolute compliment—it kind of reminded me of R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s one of the great end-of-the-world scenes I’ve ever seen, not because it’s a graphic description of cataclysm, but the quiet despair of how the characters are approaching their end

BENFORD: The Hopkins Manuscript? I’ll have to read it.  My intention in Timescape was to say that Peterson is a guy who is an alpha-male, who treats people like objects, and he’s very good at women, and he’s, you know, upper class and all this, and he’s planning for the collapse all along, and he gets into his redoubt and then realizes that he’s still contingent—dependent upon the people in the community and they don’t owe him. And then there’s this feeling of dread that he’s in a corner, and he can’t get out, and he thought he was so smart, but he’d forgotten that you have to not treat people like objects.

JT:  Greg Bear, where are you in your books?

 

BEAR: I’m God. So I’m in all of my books!  No, I just borrow stuff from my various, you know, subconscious processes and they become different characters, [modeled] somewhat after people in the real world. Mostly I model on their realities, their biographies, but their internal processes I have to think of in my own terms.

 

 

SOME GOTHIC GHOSTS:  A DIGRESSION

JT:  Greg, while I’m at it, I just wanted to go back to Dead Lines.  Based upon the things of yours I’ve read, it does seem to be a departure.  You’ve called it “science fiction,” but it is a ghost story, too, isn’t it?  I mean, you have these wireless phones that open gateways to ghosts and fiends.

 

BEAR:  Well, it’s a real gothic story, in the sense that you blur the lines between life and death, don’t you?  In the story, the world is running out of bandwidth, and there’s a new source of forbidden information channels that reach into the regions of the Dead and release all kinds of dreadful things.

 

JT:  Your Dedication certainly proclaims your love for those great “ghosters” like M.R. James, Le Fanu, H. P. Lovecraft, and Peter Straub.  And I’m glad to see you mention Shirley Jackson.

 

BEAR:  They all write ghost stories.  But Jackson has this female’s perspective on ghosts.  There’s some pretty horrific stuff in The Haunting of Hill House. The ghosts are obviously there to scare the piss out of you, but they’re taking pleasure in it.

 

JT:  She loves to play us for suckers.

 

BEAR: She does, but nevertheless there’s evil in the house. It’s not as if she’s only saying this house could be your own psychology staring at you.

 

JT:  Even when she’s not dealing in ghosts but disturbed personalities she’s still terrifying.  I’m thinking of the one about the multiple personalities, The Bird’s Nest.  That may be one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read, although I’m not quite sure why.

 

BEAR: Well, it’s just that all the character’s personalities are in a sense so isolated from each other.  Most of her main female characters in her stories are very, very disturbed emotionally. They have no connection to themselves. They’re searching for a home.  And sometimes it results in damage to the self, like in Hill House.  And in other cases it’s damage to others that we see in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Bird’s Nest. And then you think of the kind of extended garden party horrors of The Sundial, and after the end of the world. She was a very hard-minded and yet elegant writer.

 

JT: Who thought she was a witch.

 

BEAR: Who may have thought she was a witch. Probably her parents and her children thought she was a witch, too.  There are other writers I admire.  You mentioned M.R. James, who wrote about things that may or may not be ghosts, but they’re definitely not of our universe! And Lovecraft takes that same idea. They borrow those ideas from people like Arthur Machen and from William Hope Hodgson. Now, I love all of those writers. I just think they’re very interesting spiritual writers. But it’s a skewed spirituality, sort of a dire spirituality.  What I want to do is use a scientific theory to give you experiences you’ve never had before, but in a familiar way, and what is that but the ghost story? But it’s ghosts like you’ve never seen them before, in contexts that you’ve never really experience, but there’s enough of an underpinning and a mythos to what you’re seeing that it almost makes sense, and that’s what provides the scare.  You can tie this into experiences you or someone in your family may actually have had. You can say, Oh, I see that. ‘Cause I borrowed it not just from ghost stories but from people who have actually seen ghosts. Which you gotta do when you’re refreshing the medium.  And the main point of the book is to scare the pants off you, because that’s a lovely experience. And then you can turn the last page, and you can close it, and you can go to sleep.  That’s a very cozy feeling—

 

JT: —and eventually go to sleep.

 

BEAR:  Right.  Eventually go to sleep. Some people have complained about Dead Lines that way.  But that’s the kind of ghost story I love. For me, the ghost stories don’t scare me so much as they are almost a spiritual experience.  You’re getting access to what could be a view of reality beyond what you could possibly know now, and to me, how is that different from reading Olaf Stapledon? You know. And science fiction in its extreme metaphysical forms does that to you. It exalts you. And a good ghost story can do that, too.

 

JT:   What are some of your top ten ghostly tales, and why. It’s so much fun to talk about ghost stories with people that know what they’re talking about.

 

BEAR: Well, I like both movies and ghost stories.

 

JT: Let’s start with the British master, William Hope Hodgson.  Lovecraft loved his work.

 

BEAR: Hodgson? Well, brilliant in many different ways. Some of his stories are a little disappointing because his psychic sleuth, Carnacki, sometimes finds out there’s no supernatural element involved in his investigations.  But sometimes they are, like in “The Hog” and “The Whistling Room.”  So at least he wasn’t constantly delivering the message that there’s nothing scary going on here.

 

JT: But what’s going on with Carnacki’s scientific apparatus?  Seems like he’s a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, experimenting with all kinds of electrical devices. . . he even seems to be anticipating television.

 

BEAR: Well, there is a lot of that. That’s actually out of the science of the turn of the century.  Hodgson is part a science fiction writer, part a fantasy writer, part a horror writer, so it’s one third here, another third there, and another. . . . But his The Night Land is a brilliant novel, scary as hell; but really oddly written, very tough to get into. Some of the visions in The Night Land I actually incorporated into a novella set in the Eon universe called The Way of All Ghosts, and dedicated it to Hodgson. But I might go back to The Night Land again. His The House on the Borderland has got to be one of the great visionary novels of all time. And it’s just, it’s compellingly readable.  And then you go to M.R.  James and you get, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad” and nine or ten others that are just sheer masterpieces of terror.  And, forgive me here, you get an H.P. Lovecraft, who launched into a method of using circumlocuitous prose to create a sensation of disorientation that really is scary. I mean, it’s not this, it’s not that, it’s the old Hindu Neti neti, you know, undescribable.  Like At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  I didn’t put Edgar Allan Poe in that list, which I find interesting. Poe, of course, is the precursor to both mysteries and science fiction and all that stuff.  But he didn’t  write that many ghost stories.  Resurrected corpses don’t exactly qualify as ghosts to me.!

 

JT:  Now, how about Walter De la Mare?

 

BEAR:  I haven’t read a lot of his stories. They’re a little on the soft side for me. I want the really intellectual thrills and his stories tend to be more traditional stories. Kind of like Marjorie Bowen, kind of like Henry James, yeah. And they’re sometimes gentler. There’s a kind of a gentleness about De la Mare’s ghosts stories. Except for The Return, I think you were quoting, which can be a little scary. So I haven’t put him in there because he hasn’t influenced me that much. The names I put on that list were those who really have shaped the way my novel comes out, because they’ve influenced me directly.

 

 

FINALE:  DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING?

 

JT:  Obviously, living and dying are complicated elements in your stories.  The divisions between them seem to, well, get blurred, as you say.  In Darwin’s Radio, a new generation in effect is born twice.  And in Dead Lines people die twice.

 

BEAR: Right.

 

JT: What’s going on?

 

BEAR: I’ve long believed that coming into this world and going out of this world are the two hardest things you’ll ever do. You get your ticket stamped going in, you get your ticket stamped going out. It’s just miserable. It’s traumatic, it’s miserable. And the question is at that point, why is there faith, why is there a need for faith? Because of these two truths. So the people say there must have been something before and there must be something after. Interestingly enough, we don’t talk about what comes before.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate, even in a science fiction story to say, What if there is something beyond our ken?  But the interesting thing about the reaction to Dead Lines is, I think, that it’s got great reviews and it’s been called a fantasy novel. I don’t regard it as a fantasy novel. It’s a discovery of a new realm in a way that’s very frightening. And structurally that’s no different for me than what happens in Blood Music, which describes microscopic medical machines, where DNA is treated as a computational system.  Which also, I think, would be very frightening. People hate two things. They hate biological transformation which is equated with disease. Okay, something changes, then it must go wrong. Or ageing. And then they hate the notion of other kinds of change that lead to death, which is the ultimate change. But what if that’s not the end of the changes? And in Dead Lines I want to give you the impression that death is a process that has rules and is very, very moving and confusing and also strips away from you the things that you no longer need.  I borrowed this from Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay for a movie called Jacob’s Ladder. (There’ll be some spoilers if you print this!)  Jacob’s Ladder is a marvelous story about the supernatural, kind of a version of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where a man who was in Vietnam is going through the process of having all of his earthly persiflage stripped away from him. For him, the perspective is that he’s seeing demons. But in the end of the story it’s not that they’re demons. It’s that they’re there to strip away what you don’t need in the process of dying.  There’s a little bit of this sort of thing in Stephen King’s The Langoliers, which is one of the more interesting time travel stories, ’cause it’s an organic vision of time.

 

JT: Which is gobbling up the universe.

 

BEAR: Gobbling up and changing, and it’s unpredictable. It’s not mathematically linear and predictable. I kinda like that. It’s also a very scary story. And so what I’m saying is, What if ghosts are dead skin left behind? Then are there spiritual mites that chew that up and get it out of the way? And that’s a very natural process, and, again, most of my stories involve the ecology of natural processes.

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE:  Here we come to an end—or is it a new beginning?  We recall the adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac that began this book.  He had sailed to the Moon and beyond, ultimately to the sun.  Even his death, moreover, mere mortality, failed to slow him down.  Witness his epitaph:

All weary with the earth too soon

I took my flight into the skies,

Beholding there the sun and moon

Where now the Gods confront my eyes.

Like de Bergerac, Bear and Benford, along with the other figures in this book, have embarked on their own imaginative odysseys.  Occasionally they come back to gather around the cosmic campfire to share with us their adventures—with advantages.  All of them found in all the riddles and mysteries of Man and the Cosmos, as Bear reminds us, “conflicts that made for great stories. . . .”

In conclusion, as we continue our own forays into the wondrous, we would do well to bear in mind what the celebrated gothic fantasist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, wrote so long ago—

“It is said that the miraculous has vanished from the earth, but I do not                            believe it.  The miracles are still there, for even if we are no longer willing                   to call by that name the most wonderful aspects of our daily life, because                            we have managed to deduce from a succession of events a law of cyclic                            recurrence; nevertheless, there often passes through that cycle a                                     phenomenon which puts all our wisdom to shame, and which, in our                            stupid obstinacy, we refuse to believe because we are unable to                                     comprehend it.”[10]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


            [1] Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act V/

 

            [2] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (New York:  Vintage Press, 2010), 459.

 

            [3] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), 381-382.

 

            [4] Stephen Jay Gould, “Modified Grandeur,” Natural History, Vol. 14, No. 20 (March 1993), 14-20.

 

            [5] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1996), 35.

            [6] William

THE HERESY OF HUMANISM

 

GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT OF

 

THE VOICES OF WONDER:  CONVERSATIONS ON CLASSIC FANTASY, SCIENCE FICTION AND HORROR

by John C. Tibbetts

 

Of all our fictions, there is none so utterly baseless and empty as this          idea that humanity progresses.  The savage’s natural impression is that the world he sees about him was made for him, and that the rest          of the universe is subordinated to him and his world, and that all the spirits and demons and gods occupy themselves exclusively with him and his affairs.  That idea was the basis of every pagan religion, and it is the basis of the Christian religion, simply because it is the foundation of human nature.

Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896)

 

“Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!”

Greg Bear

This book, this colloquy of voices, concludes with a conversation between two of the brightest and most respected  writers and scientists in the current science fiction scene, Gregory Benford (1941-) and Greg Bear (1952-).

Gregory Benford is a physicist, educator, and author and is currently a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine.  His more than twenty novels, include the classic Timescape (1980) and the “Galactic Center Saga” series (including Great Sky River, 1987).  He has won two Nebula Awards, the John W. Campbell Award, and the Australian Ditmar Award.  In 1995 he received the Lord Foundation Award for contributions to science and to the public comprehension of it.

Greg Bear (1952-) is the author of more than thirty books of science fiction and fantasy, including The Forge of God (1987), Songs of Earth & Power (1994), Darwin’s Radio (1999), Darwin’s Children (2003), and, most recently, Quantico (2005) and Mariposa (2009).  He has won two Hugo Awards and five Nebulas for his fiction, and he is one of two authors to win a Nebula in every category.  He has been called the “best working writer of hard science fiction” by The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  His major themes include galactic conflict (the Forge of God series), artificial universes (The Way series), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, 1985 and Darwin’s Radio, 1999).  Bear has served on political and scientific action committees and has advised Microsoft Corporation, the U.S. Army, the CIA, Sandia National Laboratories, Callison Architecture, Inc., Homeland Security, and other groups and agencies.

As both poets and scientists, Bear and Benford are willing and able to address in their own researches and in their stories not only many of the themes, traditions, and styles we have identified as the traditional gothic/science fiction mode—space opera, Faustian pacts, forbidden knowledge, paranoia, parallel worlds, etc.—but also those specters of scientific inquiry first raised by Dr. Frankenstein:  the blurring of the lines between art and science, the emerging studies of nanotechnology, cellular intelligence, artificial universes, new mythologies, the vectors of human genetic and cosmic evolution, and, finally, what Bear and Benford call the “heresy of humanism.”  To quote the words of the eponymous Faust in Goethe’s gothic masterpiece, they confront the ever-growing suspicion that Man is only a Fool

“. . . who squints beyond with  blinking eyes

Imagining his like above the skies.”[1]

Undaunted, however, they would echo Richard Holmes’s statement query at the beginning of this book:  Can there be “a new kind of wonder born out of radical doubt”?[2]

What a profusion of topics Bear and Benford tackle in their freewheeling conversation!  They are among many scientist-writers, such as Arthur C. Clark, Poul Anderson, and Carl Sagan, who have inherited a century of rapidly mounting tensions in the troubled relationships among art, science, and religion.  In his remarkable The Education of Henry Adams (1906), social historian Adams was already expressing doubts about what he had been taught was the unity of a God-centered universe.  Recoiling from the shock of Darwinian theory, he faced a “multiverse” of new forces, the steam engine, electricity, the telephone, the watt, ampere, and erg—forces which couldn’t be measured by the yardsticks of his predecessors.  “Man had translated himself into a new universe,” he wrote, “which had no common scale of measurement with the old.  He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his sense, perhaps even imperceptible to his instruments, but perceptible to each other.”

As a result, Adams predicted, in a new world of science, society, and philosophy Man must turn away from the Virgin and bow down to the Dynamo.[3]

At the time Adams wrote, Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology had already been introduced at the turn of the century.  Einstein was propounding his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905.  The nucleus of the atom was discovered in 1909.  Niels Bohr’s Quantum Physics was formulated in 1926.  The Manhattan Project developed the destructive potential of atomic physics in the early 1940s.  The double helix in the nucleus of the cell was explored in 1953. And subsequently came the sequencing of the genomes of microbes, the polymerase chain reaction, linkages between living human brains and mechanical appendages, even the development of a giant Google search engine that reaches out to the furthest limits of human knowledge.

Doubts, concerns, outright denials of man’s meaningful purpose and place in the universe—in short, the sense of Wonder—are voiced ever more loudly.  During the recent “evolution wars,” for example, Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague, Niles Eldredge, famously critiqued the Darwinian theory of gradual selection by emphasizing the contingent nature of history, the nonadaptive qualities of organisms—“the directionless arrow in a purposeless cosmos.”  While they do not deny that natural selection creates well-adapted organisms, they do object that it works gradually on preexisting structures.  Rather, it moves in “jumps,” punctuated by brief periods of rapid change (“punctuated equilibrium”).  In other words, not everything in nature can be explained through the adaptationist paradigm.  “If we have lost a degree of grandeur for each step of knowledge gained,” writes Gould, “then we must fear Faust’s bargain:  ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’” (14)

Gould response was succinctly formulated in his famous essay, “Modified Grandeur” (1993).[4] He took as his starting point the final lines from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:  “There is a grandeur in this view of life. . . whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.” Darwin had never implied progress as the necessary feature of organic history, pursued Gould; rather Darwin had alleged that Homo sapiens are a “tiny and unpredictable twig on a richly ramifying tree of life—a happy accident of the last geological moment, unlikely ever to appear again if we could regrow the tree from seed” (20).  But here, argues Gould, in words echoing those of astronomer Herschel and poet Percy Shelley more than a century before, lies grandeur [or, I would say, wonder]:  “We can now step off and back—and see nature as something so vast, so strange (yet comprehensive), and so majestic in pursuing its own ways without human interference, that grandeur becomes the best word of all for expressing our interest, and our respect.”  In a similar pronouncement, Carl Sagan has declared:  “No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.”[5]

Where, then, might we find a Creator?  And what about immortality?  Ever since the late 19th century, many esteemed philosophers, biologists, and physicists have boldly tackled the problem.  A few relatively recent examples will suffice.  In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Williams James objected to the Positivist contention that  unverifiable belief is unscientific, illusory, and antiquated nonsense, by famously pronouncing his extrapolation of “The Science of Religion”:  “Facts, I think, are yet lacking to prove ‘spirit return’. . . .  I consequently leave the matter open.”  But, James continued, “For practical life, at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough.  No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.  The existence of the chance makes the difference . . . between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.”[6]  Professor Kenneth R. Miller, for his part, argues that evolution, genetics, and molecular science do indeed support the existence of a Creator.  “A biologically static world,” writes Miller, “would leave a Creator’s creatures with neither freedom nor the independence required to exercise that freedom.  In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are—free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.”[7]  Again turning to Carl Sagan, he suggests that scientific inquiry in itself is “informed worship.”  If a “god” or anything like the traditional sort exists, he continues, “then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god.  We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves.”  However, if such a god does not exist, “then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time.”[8]

And with this new Age of Wonder come new art forms.  Here is another complex, inexhaustible topic.  Suffice to venture just one speculation before turning to Greg Bear and Gregory Benford:  Freeman Dyson suggests that new art forms will be centered on biology and computers.  “If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology,” continues Dyson, “then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants.  This art form, using the biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born.”[9]

Now, let us see what Greg Bear and Gregory Benford have to say about these and many other topics. . .

 

THE CONVERSATION WITH GREG BEAR AND GREGORY BENFORD

This conversation between Greg Bear and Gregory Benford transpired at the University of Kansas on July 10, 2004.  The occasion was the 2004 John W. Campbell Conference, at which both men received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  I wish to thank James Gunn and Chris McKitterick of the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction for facilitating our meeting.

 

STORYTELLING AND SPACE OPERA
JOHN C. TIBBETTS:  Maybe the best place to start is to talk about storytelling. What lies behind all the scientific and fantastic extrapolation, all the philosophical and religious riddles—is pure storytelling.

 

GREG BEAR:  Well, don’t forget that the whole thing about the conflict between science and faith makes for great stories!

 

JT:  And you’ve got characters we get to know, we care about.
GREG BEAR:  That’s what stories are. Stories are people, people who are doing things, doing interesting things. That’s what it’s all about. And you might have a literature of ideas—but who has ideas? People have ideas. They don’t come out of the void.  People have to act on them and to respond to the consequences.

 

BENFORD: Yes, of course.

 

JT: The scientific background, though, that you guys bring to your stories, do you see this as representative of some new voices in science fiction?

 

BEAR: We’re still young Turks!

 

JT: Young Turks, I like that.  Maybe, it’s hard for us to read pure “space opera” anymore, since we know now that a solid scientific basis can still provide a good rattling story.

 

BEAR: I still write space opera. Anvil of Stars is space opera, it’s just very sophisticated space opera.

 

JT: Was so-called space opera a big influence on you both?

 

BENFORD: Oh, sure, it has been for me. The novel I’m just finishing I hope this week, called The Sunborn [published 2005] is about interplanetary exploration, a thing that’s almost entirely neglected now because we think we understand the solar system. But the bulk of the action occurs out at the orbit of Pluto, which, of course, we actually don’t know much about. And it’s an attempt to envision a different form of life-form that could inhabit the cold and the dark.  But “space opera” is a term I’ve never liked, because opera after all in a sense can be about grand things; the music is grandiose; and most of it is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll!  I think the new resurrection of space opera over the last ten years is in part an unconscious reflex, given that so much earth-bound science fiction concerns a future in which everyone seems to believe things are going to get worse. And it’s hard to be optimistic for many people because of an old human habit—it’s always easier to see the problems than the solutions.

 

JT: It’s easier to dramatize them, too.

 

BENFORD: Right, yeah. It’s always easier to be downbeat in the same way that it’s harder to be funny than it is to be solemn.  The future, I think, doesn’t have to be dark and depressing. I mean, we’ve obviously got problems.  But I think a lot of them can be met. And people who are now looking out at the beginning of this century and saying, “Gosh, things are going to get a lot worse”—the relevant question is, “Yeah, for whom? Because, for many people on this planet, things have always been bad.

 

 

APOCALYPSE AND THE FAMILY OF MAN

JT:  Let’s follow up on this.  Greg, repeatedly you seem to be saying the 20th century has been a disaster, that the 20th century was breeding a kind of contagion.

 

BEAR: I’m afraid I once said that if you study the 20th century long enough, you want to pack a gun!  It’s not a disaster, it’s a challenge. And this is an interesting difference, depending on your perspective. I never regard my books as disaster novels—although sometimes they seem to be.

 

JT:  But in The Forge of God you destroy the Earth!  It’s one of the more sustained and compelling passages of your prose I’ve ever read!  I mean, what were you thinking when you were writing all of this?

 

BEAR: Well, writers are bloody-minded individuals and we have the most fun doing the most horrible things.  I immensely enjoyed Star Wars, the first one, but I realized that you can’t just blow up Alderaan and Princess Leia’s record collection in eight seconds. It’s going to take a while. So as a hard science fiction writer I say, well, what’s that like? And then, as a cinematographer in my brain I’m asking, well, if you’re on the surface of the planet watching this destruction, you can actually survive long enough to see amazing things. Absolutely astonishing things.  It would be almost worthwhile to watch these things happen. And for me that moment comes when our main character, I think it’s Edward, looks up to the east and sees the North Atlantic plate rising up. Or the North American plate rising up. And at that point you know you’re dead. Why? Because as a physicist if it falls back, the release of energy will heat up the landscape around you and you’re just a fragile ball of water, right? But at that point you’ve seen something no one has ever seen in the history of life on earth. And that’s the combined horror and the exaltation. It’s like a deer standing before a forest fire.

 

JT: But is there an exaltation in you as you’re writing it?

 

BEAR: Yes, in the sense of, I’m gonna make people feel extraordinary emotions. I think every artist does that.

 

JT:  By contrast, the apocalypse at the end of Dead Lines is so, well, gentle . . .

 

BEAR: Yeah, well. It’s just about people.

 

JT: Apocalypses come in all shapes and sizes.

 

BEAR: As I get older I’m less interested in blowing up the earth and, you know, just kinda figuring out what being around people means to me.  I mean, I write something like that and they call you a cannibal for the rest of your life!  Think of  apocalypse as more of a metaphor for evolutionary progression, or change.  In Darwin’s Radio I write about sudden bursts in human speciation, the sort of thing Stephen Jay Gould has called  “punctuated equilibrium.”  And we have the stress that results from trying to be the best we can be in spite of all our problems—and that allows us to naturally produce better children, capable of handling those stresses. That’s not a disaster story.  It’s a story that maybe we have gone past the point of our competence.  But is that sad?  That’s what happens with every set of parents and children. If parents don’t want their children to do better and be better, are they very good parents?  So my whole approach in something like Darwin’s Radio is, yes, these kids in the story are slightly more competent than us at living in a world that we made, perhaps; but we don’t know, they’re an experiment. They’re a very young experiment.

 

JT: And an interesting subtlety is that the parents, in the process, are transformed themselves. They now undergo an evolutionary change.

 

BEAR: Isn’t that what happens when you have kids? It’s all a metaphor for the simple act of having kids. Having kids is optimism about the future. They’re different from you, they think somewhat different from you, they are better adapted, we hope, to the world you created.

 

JT: And you end the book with the parents seemingly estranged, now, from each other.

 

BEAR: You see more of that in the sequel, Darwin’s Children. Again, this is because it’s difficult to have children. It’s painful and difficult and involves deep surveillance of emotions and conflicting ideas about how to raise kids. But always there’s the love throughout.  Even when the parents are separated in Darwin’s Children, there’s that continuing sense that this is the only partner you’re ever going to have that makes any sense for you. And later, in Darwin’s Children, they’re working separately. But having kids is hard. It causes arguments, it causes debates, it causes reassessments, changes the marriage. And that’s just part of the natural truth of what it means to have kids.

 

JT: I hadn’t realized that you’re using a theory like “punctuated equilibrium” as a metaphor for child rearing. . . !  Gregory Benford, you also talk about having children in Great Sky River.

 

BENFORD: Oh, right, yeah.

 

JT: Because the relationship between the protagonist and his son is so critical to that book. Now, I’ve not read the two sequels, if sequel is the word.

 

BENFORD: Well, there’s actually three–

 

BEAR: There’s three. Three, altogether. .

 

JT: But again the father-son thing emerges as the real theme, seemingly.

 

BENFORD:  You’re referring to Killeen and his son, Toby.  They and their clan are on the run.  Their planet is threatened with destruction by the cyborg forces.  Well, fathers and sons is one of the great themes of literature, isn’t it? Agamemnon had some things to say about that! Actually, Great Sky River is part of a whole six-book sequence called the Galactic Center series that started back in 1977 with In the Ocean of Night. And it’s really about the skills of us hominids holding things together in the face of imminent annihilation.  They must enter into the scale of understanding that we’re part of an entire galactic order, and that things have been going on a long time before we came on stage—that we’re coming in not in Act One but maybe Act Seventeen of a really long drama.  You have to go back to your basics, and that means that you have to have cultural continuity.  Fathers have to tell sons what it really means to be a man, and how you act in the face of huge difficulties, difficulties that you may not, in fact, be able to surmount.  In Great Sky River human beings are not this “winner” society that we’re used to, they are rats in the wall of a system in which they face intelligences that are not human—in fact they’re machines—that are far, far superior in many ways, and utterly malign.  That’s straight out of Lovecraft, you know?  I wanted to turn on its head the assumption of the centrality of being human, which is so pervasive in human society—you know, “the measure of all things is man.” Well, I call it in my most recent novel Beyond Infinity, the “heresy of humanism.”  It is a heresy to think that humans are central to the larger grand scale of creation, and it will cost you to believe that.

 

BEAR: Arrogance always costs you.  In Blood Music I make it pretty clear that our need to see humanity as the center of the biological universe is as egotistical as the notion we once held that the Earth is the center of the galaxy!  Astronomers from Galileo to Herschel and Hubble and beyond were always telling us that!

 

EVOLUTION AND GALACTIC ECOLOGY

JT:  Something called “galactic ecology” is a concern for both of you.  In particular, Greg, this seems to be one of the messages coming out of The Forge of God.

 

BEAR: Well, I read Benford in my youth!

 

BENFORD: Ha!

 

BEAR: And it seems like this is a perfectly reasonable attitude. What Greg is espousing has to be the attitude of the 21st century. And in Forge of God, you really are looking at that large-scale ecology of the galaxy.

 

JT: I had not run into the term “galactic ecology” before. Could you give me a quick explanation?

 

BEAR: There’s always been this question, Why aren’t the Aliens here yet? You know, here we are sending out signals, but we don’t hear any signals coming back.  And my one answer that came back to me loud and clear was, Well, you’re birds cheeping in the forest from the nest, and there are snakes out there, and they’re going to crawl up the tree and eat you if you keep chirping your little heart out!  And that seemed like a good story idea, a traditional science fiction story idea of disastrous encounters.  That’s the old gothic theme, and you see it a lot in writers from Mary Shelley to Lovecraft—man’s hubris, you know, risking disaster by courting unknown monsters.  I mean, why are you announcing your presence when you’re weak? And if you think there’s no life out there, then, okay, we’re safe. But if there is life out there, then you have to run with what you know about life, which is that life has both predators and partners.  The real metaphor of life is how things change, how they communicate with each other and how they change. And that’s evolution. And we’ve had many fits and starts in trying to reach this understanding. We’ve tried to isolate ourselves as angelic intelligences, apart from biology, except for those damned urges, which just can’t be overcome.  And then we get all this persiflage about good and evil and cruelty and all that stuff. It’s all part of a natural system.  There may indeed be teleological and intelligently directed evolution, but we don’t need to blame it on God.  In its own way, DNA itself may be goal-seeking and problem-solving.  The fact is, we’re in pain, so we object to it. That’s perfectly natural. But if you’re going to talk about the large scale stuff, you have to overcome your sense of pain long enough to realize. . .  why? What’s the process here? If there is no process, there’s certainly a development, and if there’s development going on, where is it headed? If it’s not headed any place you would particularly like to call progressive, then why is it not fitting your particular desires and needs? Why is the universe not catering to us? This is the scientific principle:  the universe does not cater to you.

 

JT:  But you just said it might be in the DNA itself.

 

BEAR: In Darwin’s Children I have it both ways. I say, look, we don’t understand jack about what’s going on here, but it’s obvious that there can be intelligent design from within your own genome, spread around a neural network of different species, different animals, different ecosystems. That is the first time this has ever been, I believe, cogently expressed in that form—that this is internal creativity, it’s obviously operating within the genome.  Now the genome is a self-directing system reacting to changes, responding to the outside environment in very significant ways. So given that, yeah, we’re looking at a universe that has both internal design; and then the big question from outside, is that all there is? Is that all there is? And science at that point kind of stops off and says, well, it’s all we can measure.

 

JT: I hear a song by Peggy Lee in my head!

 

BEAR: Yeah. “Is that all there is, my friend?” But seriously, it’s really a huge question, because that’s a question of where science and faith collide. And what is faith? What is imagination?  What is poetry and music?  I tried to talk about their importance to our sense of humanity in my Songs of Earth & Power.  They get so many people who are in pain through a hard day or a hard month or a hard year. Why? Because they just know there’s something better out there. And as a biological thing, that makes things like faith essential to survival. Is it an illusion? That’s a big question. If it’s an illusion, it’s still essential to survival, so you can’t just pierce the illusion willy-nilly. But what if there is something going on? What if you’re receiving these messages from a thing outside of process? And you’re a scientist, and your whole upbringing is that this is impossible.

 

ART AND SCIENCE

JT:   Science and faith. . . You also mentioned Art?

 

BEAR:  Yes, in Songs of Earth & Power [1994] I talk about music and poetry.  Mahler and Mozart both show up at the end!

 

JT:  You’re not kidding!  There they are—characters in your story!  The sheer audacity of it took my breath away!  They’re not dead, exactly, and not—

 

BEAR:  They’ve been, well, delayed, you could say.  Consider:  Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony.  I asked myself. . . Why???  Because when you reach the Tenth  Symphony, like Mahler, you’ve acquired a level of wisdom that creates a song of power. And in my book the elves—I call them the Sidhe—don’t want humans to achieve that. There’s forces that will come in to thwart that.  I mean, it’s a very paranoid vision, the whole gothic thing.  Think of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem:  The man in gray shows up.  Who was the man in gray? Salieri?  A mysterious patron?  A “Person from Porlock.?”  Well, I do have a Person from Porlock in my book!  Remember him?—he’s the person who “interrupted” Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” . . .  and maybe he’s the person who blocked the finish of Mozart’s Requiem.  There are so many instances in poetry and music and literature like this that are really interesting, because man is kept from achieving a higher being.  And you could take six or seven of those instances and string them into a story; and I did. I’m not sure if Borges actually wrote an essay on the mystery of interruption, but he could have.

 

JT:  Seems like he did on everything else!

 

BEAR: Yeah. And that’s why I think that these two novels [The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage] are kind of extended combinations of George MacDonald and Jorge Luis Borges and, you know, half a dozen other fantasy writers.

 

JT: George MacDonald. Yes.  Lilith absolutely blew my mind.

 

BEAR: It’s great, isn’t it? Christian surrealism!

 

JT:  I mean, it’s a leap of imagination that just left me—

 

BEAR: Yeah.

 

JT:  —stunned.

 

BEAR:  I mean, where do all of our imaginations begin?  Is it that reality is menacing, supportive, or a combination of the two? And our deepest fears come from trying to be a kid and get along in a world you don’t understand. And when you’re a baby there are lots of things you see that you don’t know whether they’re real or not. You have no context—

 

JT:  So where does Art with a capital “A” come in?  And the Artist?  Gregory Benford, you talk about an awful creature called the “Mantis” in Great Sky River.  It is an “artist”. . . sort of, but a very perverse one.  It does bridge the gap between mechanical apparatus and organic life.  Is that the height of the artistic frontier, like the Mantis claims?

 

BENFORD: Yes, well, we don’t think of ourselves as malleable material?—as suitable material for the artworks of higher and more powerful being.  But of course, the deer whose antlers are on the wall don’t think that either!  I thought a way to show the true position of humans on this scale was to show that “cosmic artists” would treat them as mere material, and that these others would regard the complexities of human society and our way of perceiving the world as just grist for their mill.  Toward the end of Great Sky River, a human stumbles upon this gallery that the Mantis—

 

JT:  —horrific stuff.

 

BENFORD:  —has made up. And he’s taken human beings, their bodies, and made them into festooned works, without any consideration of the point of view of the humans at all. And so all these grotesque things are created by another intelligence for aesthetic purposes that appear to us to be horrific.

 

BEAR: Satanic, at the very least.

 

BENFORD: Yes, satanic.

 

JT:  While reading that, I kept thinking of the hideous reconstructions from human bones into chairs and tables you see in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Well—

 

JT: Which is another kind of corrupt or perverted art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. Actually, I haven’t seen that movie. But it sounds like the same thing.

 

BEAR: Hannibal Lecter’s cuisine applied to furniture!

 

BENFORD: And you think of the Nazis who made lamp shades out of human flesh. Anything that reduces humans to the status of object is inherently insulting and horrific. And yet that attitude we have is part of the defensive posture of a species that has been winning for so long in the evolutionary lottery that maybe we’ve forgotten that we may not be the lords of creation.

 

JT: Well, what about maybe some more benign examples of art-making?

 

BENFORD: Yes. Artists in the future would regard our preconceptions or our perceptions of the world as suitable material.  They would create effects that appear to be illusions, exploiting our habits of breaking down information to produce things that are not real, but which we perceive as being real because they, in a sense, have subverted our visual processing power.  You perceive it two ways, like an ambigram.

 

BEAR: Like the faces in the vase.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BENFORD: That shows that there’s an ambiguity in the way we interpret visual information. You can make up images that you can see two ways. Well, what about three-dimensional objects you can see two ways? And that are moving, so it makes you see things that don’t exist. But your own processing power is doing the work of creating the illusion. That’s an art form that I think will come about.

 

JT: Do other science fiction writers write about the arts very much?

 

BEAR: Well, William Rotsler has a novel, Patron of the Arts, where he envisioned an artistic form called the “sensatron.”  Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book about a kind of cosmic orchestra [A Memory of Whiteness]. And Roger Zelazny wrote a lot about music, religion, art work….

 

BENFORD: Science is an art form?

 

BEAR: Yeah. It’s a way of artificially putting  things into context that you didn’t understand before.

 

BENFORD: Well, that’s true.

 

JT: What about aesthetics?

 

BEAR: Aesthetics is a class-based judgment system. For most of the people on this planet, art is amusement, which is something they don’t want to strongly define. It diverts them from their everyday lives. Aesthetics comes in when you have a higher class or educated class that then wants to isolate their attitudes from those of the lower classes. Then you use more high-falutin’ words with Greek contexts, or Roman contexts. Everything else is just—as far as I’m concerned—playing to the groundlings.  We just don’t know it.

 

BENFORD: Hmm. The idea that science is an art work. . . . But art never answers to the necessity of empirical verification.

 

BEAR: Until now.  It’s a constraint upon your behavior. Every art form is an assumption of a philosophy or an attitude that constrains your freedom of motion to do art. So we’re all very amused that chimpanzees can paint but we don’t know what their context is, so they don’t sell for a lot of money.  Okay? But a scientist has a constraint that it has to be outside of just his or her personal relationship with the universe. Other people have to be able to see it and do it over again.

 

BENFORD: And check it.

 

BEAR: And check it. And that’s an art form of the highest caliber. Because it’s a participative art form. It doesn’t just say that only one person can do it, the great genius is the only person who can do this experiment. That might be true of Michelangelo’s David, but it’s not true of Einstein’s relativity or general relativity. We can do that experiment over and over and over again and get similar results. So that’s a real work of art.

 

BENFORD: Yes. But, the trick of course, is that art—science as art—is always provisional. It’s always a partial vision.

 

BEAR: Well, now, that’s an interesting distinction. Art can be a completed vision within the culture. But we still read about great scientific things of the past as completed visions that we have now gone beyond. And I think artists do the same thing.

 

JT: Well, if I understand you guys correctly, then somebody like Rudolf Arnheim talks about art as what he insists should be only a “partial illusion.” In its incompleteness lies its beauty, its importance as art.

 

BENFORD: Sure. The Sistine Chapel is probably the ultimate of what you can do in that direction, and the evidence is that nobody has even attempted anything like that in a very long time. You can say that of Baroque music. How come people aren’t writing Baroque music now? I think it’s because they feel that in some sense it’s exhausted, or it’s complete. I’ve always wondered about that. Remember, Prokofiev when he wrote a classical symphony, he actually couldn’t do it totally in earnest. That is, it’s got funny parts.

 

JT: It still has his harmonic vocabulary.

 

BENFORD: Yes, right.

 

BEAR: He’s got a wider range of emotions he can deal with. He’s not constrained by the church, or by the upper classes who are his patrons.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: Not so much constrained. He still is, and a lot of composers always have been, but it’s not as bad as Haydn or Bach.

 

BENFORD: Well, was it Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as comedy? But art can do the same thing. You start to make, in a sense, make fun, or make fun with, the modes and mannerisms of the past.

 

BEAR: Which I think scientists do in a subtle way, too. It’s less “ha ha” funny than, “You really goofed up your experiment, here’s how you do it better!” And it’s a constant sense of criticism of improvement far more disciplined than any art form I know of.

 

JT: But mistakes in art can be very important. Mistakes in a scientific procedure can be disastrous.

 

BEAR: But you learn from them.

 

BENFORD: Yes….

 

JT: But we don’t treasure the mistakes. I mean, John Marin’s watercolors are precious because the globs of water dripped down across the surface and he kept them there. He didn’t correct them, you know.

 

BENFORD: But it’s true that you learn from “mistakes.” The classic example I would venture is that, when Einstein added a constant to his general field equations to make the solution for the universe to be static, he didn’t realize that it was static but if you tipped it a little bit it was unstable, it would either contract or expand. He regarded that as a huge error. However, we now know the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and one way of looking at that is to say that that constant is real and is now driving the expansion. So it’s a mistake. It starts to fix a problem, then it looks like it’s wrong, and now it’s back again in a different guise.

 

BEAR: And in twenty years it might be wrong again. ‘Cause the whole Big Bang thing is starting to look a little gnarly, you know, we’re starting to get some ideas that maybe this isn’t what we should be looking at, because it’s getting really complicated. So it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of people who are educating their children, basically, to carry on with the mission, and to criticize them down the road. Very few artists do this. But scientists do.

 

BENFORD: That’s true. It’s the quality of self-criticism that makes science become the standard for believability in our society. After all, now since everybody has Adobe Photoshop, you can’t even believe what you see.

 

BEAR: And with your illusions we couldn’t even believe what we see in real life, so.

 

BENFORD: Seeing is no longer believing and it’s going to take a long time for our culture to quite realize that.

 

BEAR: What I found interesting was that, for many scientists, sometimes seeing was still not believing, even under a scientific context. You know, because it doesn’t fit in to the past experience. So, you have spiritual experiences, they are explained in non-spiritual ways by the hardcore scientists. Rather than saying, I do not know, a spiritual experience is relegated to being pure psychology. That is, of meaningless value because it refers to something outside of the context of science that we know today.

 

JT: I’m thinking, too, of Robert Bresson, the French filmmaker, who will bring about a spiritual condition, but under the most bland, inane, uninflected kind of camera work, viewing angle, and performance.

 

BEAR: Right. Isn’t that how it happens in real life? You know, it doesn’t come with glorious Max Steiner music in the background and you’re on the cliffs of France staring down at the water and suddenly God touches you. Usually happens when you’re in the bathtub, or driving a car, or, you know, doing something else. So, epiphany is as rude as any other thing in reality.

 

JT:  You take music into other directions, Greg.  You mentioned earlier Songs of Earth &  Power, where you write about composers whose music has profound effects, both in this world and in other worlds.

 

BEAR:  Yes, I talk about music as a kind of magical incantation, like Arno Waltiri’s “Infinity Concerto.”  Performing it can risk apocalypse.  Music as a bridge that melds worlds.  I’m afraid that combination of music and magic has confused some readers, though.

 

JT:  But didn’t the German Romantics, from Wackenroder to Schumann say the same thing?  But you don’t stop there.  There’s your story, “Tangents,” which is rather like a cross between Henry Kuttner and Albert Einstein!

 

BEAR:  There was this keyboard hookup whose music called forth 4th dimensional creatures—

 

JT:  I thought immediately of Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”—

 

BEAR:  —And it was fun to think what the hypersphere of the 4th dimension would look like if it intruded into our 3-dimensional space!  But you didn’t mention Blood Music.  My character can hear a kind of “internal music,” of the operations inside his blood.    Which is rhythm.  It’s coordinated rhythm.  It’s a communication that is everywhere; it completely absorbs us, consumes us. We can’t arise out of it. So when we’re talking to each other, we don’t perceive the language we’re using. And when, you know, genes are talking to each other, what’s the context there? How many layers of translation did they go through? When particles are talking to each other, in my crackpot theory of physics, which I borrow from four or five other physicists, what are particles talking to each other about? And on what level is it constrained? So I’m just very interested in all the connectedness and the talking going on in the universe.

 

JT: Like in your most recent book, Dead Lines [2004].  All kinds of “talking” going on there!  You have these wireless phones that open gateways to fiendish creatures.

 

BEAR:  The reviews called it a ghost story, a fantasy. I think it’s a science fiction novel. It’s just that science is not thought to cross over into that particular thing because it’s constrained from it by cultural prejudices. But the other thing is, it’s very tough to replicate ghosts. Can’t do it. It used to be very, very tough to replicate lightning. Now we can do it. What if there’s a technological change such that you could start to study these phenomena?

 

JT: These technological  changes are Pandora’s boxes

 

BEAR: They really could be, yeah.

 

JT: There’s always this cautionary element you see in the gothic tradition.  It keeps popping up. Even in the most modern kind of science fiction we still go back to the old days when Scientists Should Not Venture into the Forbidden Zones. That is such a deeply-rooted fear that we have, still.

 

BENFORD: Well, particularly I think it’s an expression of a deeply puritanical impulse in Western society, particularly in the United States. And it has huge costs and policy implications. Here, let me give you an example. We’re all worried about the “greenhouse” problem. But we think only in terms of using state power to stop people from burning fossil fuels. We don’t think about all the other terms in the equation, the terms of the temperature of the earth. For example, could we build buildings with white roofs or generate more cloud cover to reflect more sunlight? Or, how about pulling carbon out of the air, which agriculture does every year, and then keeping it out of the air? Because, after all, the bulk of everything in a farm is waste product, and you let it lie in the fields and it rots and returns to the air. It’s a big fraction of the carbon that cycles in and out every year. We don’t think about grabbing that and, say, sequestering it somewhere. I’ve written a couple of papers for Climate Change, an academic journal about this. The puritan impulse is to focus on our own evil. Bad people! Don’t burn fuels! Instead of saying, hey, there are other things here that we could be doing and we don’t have to stop guys from burning coal in China. So there’s a cost to these preconceptions.

 

JT: It also—it’s so healthy, too—God knows I’m going to quote Derrida—but to de-center our convictions, our monomanias, about these things—consider their oppositions, consider the gradations, consider how there are others that can happen, that can work.

 

BENFORD: Well, it’s natural to the species to divide problems into twos. I mean, our way of suggesting alternatives is to say “on the other hand”. We have two hands so we think there are two points on an issue. Not so. Nature does not know this, right, and therefore in the greenhouse problem, there’s three, four different things that we could do. But we don’t even suggest or study them being done, because everybody’s fixated on essentially a moral issue. Bad species. Shouldn’t burn all that coal.

 

BEAR: Oh, it’s Biblical. It’s very Biblical. The whole notion of good and evil and the dichotomy between being the stewards of the earth and, you know, being the exploiters of the earth. It’s a dichotomy. But as Gregory says, not a real dichotomy. There are many solutions. All of which cause great controversy in a society that doesn’t understand how science works to start with. They’re afraid of science.  There are two reasons for this. One, I think because of World War I. But two, we just have people who are not numeric thinkers. They don’t get along with numbers very easily. Like people who can’t read very well. They have a hard time getting into books. Okay, so our society is through the way we teach and the way we discuss these issues, and the way science relies almost entirely on mathematics, it’s very hard for some people to get. Probably well over half don’t get that kind of thinking. And it scares them. So that breaks down. It’s a biological, epistemological breakdown into—what would you call the biology of education? That’s not epistemology. What would biology of education be?

 

BENFORD: I don’t know if there’s a term for the biology—

 

BEAR: But to that extent we need to improve the way we teach people, and perhaps change the way we use language to get ideas across. And that’s a long-term prospect.

 

BENFORD: The great thing about reading is, it’s the best way to get into somebody else’s mind. And it’s unfortunate—

 

BEAR: It’s better and more intimate than making love.

 

BENFORD: But it’s still verbal. And the news of a couple of days ago, the study done by the U.S. census, shows that reading is declining in all age groups just about the same amount in the United States, and has fallen about ten percent in the last fifteen years, is very bad news for the long-term stewardship of this society.

 

BEAR: Well, again, I think it’s part of that long-term problem that text has been difficult for many people to access. And movies and other things are starting to eat our lunch. But they’re eating our lunch at a much more diverse table, because there are far fewer films than there are books. Far fewer television shows, they’re far more expensive to make. So the media–even games, comic books, all these things are much more expensive to do.

 

JT: And each new technology engenders a new kind of nostalgia for what came before. Your character in Dead Lines loves LP records–

 

BEAR:  Well, yeah, but so do I.

 

JT:  —for example.

 

BEAR: I’m getting old that way.

 

JT: You even overtly praise the sound quality of an LP.

 

BEAR: Well, that’s actually—even Hollywood recognizes that, if you go back to, what is it? The Rock. Nicolas Cage gets this copy of a Beatles album, and he pays a hundred and fifty bucks for it, and his friends sits there and asks him, Well, why? And he says, Well, it sounds better. So even Hollywood knows that.

 

JT: Well, High Fidelity, too, gives that a heavy working-over. John Cusack.

 

BEAR: That’s about to change, though. Actually, SACD sounds better than LPs. So.

 

BENFORD: But, we’re entering an age in which all of our information is digital but our pleasures are analog. And you’re never going to get away from that analog.

 

JT: I’m not sure if I understood that.

 

BENFORD: Well, all the things that you do with your body are analog, not digital.

 

JT: I guess I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.

 

BENFORD: But everybody’s in love with the digital because it’s new.

 

BEAR: It’s more compact, easier to carry, easy to record, easy to duplicate. There’s no interference from quantum effects, ’cause you just isolate that out.

 

BENFORD: And the way we transmit our genetic info is obviously digital in the sense that DNA has got a fore-coded information system. But the way we think is furiously analogic. Synapses run, and the chemical involvement—Anyone who’s had five martinis knows that your thinking changes for analog reasons, not digital.

 

BEAR: Is it pure anal– It’s not a sine wave. It’s not analog in the sense of a sine wave. It really is some sort of….

 

BENFORD: But thinking is not digital.

 

BEAR: No. No, not at all.

 

BENFORD: And therefore the whole analogy of our thinking to computers is fundamentally false. I mean, we’re actually—even if you wanted to use the analogy, we are self-programming computers. Because we can do things that change the memory. I mean, it’s often said that a memory is never the same the next time, because by accessing it, you alter it. That’s not true of computer files.

 

BEAR: Although, actually, in hard drives apparently it’s getting more and more true that there’s a mathematical algorithm that reconstructs from a very faulty record a perfect replica of what was put in there on your computer hard drive. Because you have to do that, because you’re in such small spaces now that quantum effects are causing corruption to the data.  So you have these mathematical algorithms that quite literally save your butt when you’re storing information.

 

 

 

WRITING AND TEACHING

JT: It must be great to be a student in one of your classes. Are both you guys still teaching?

 

BEAR: He is.

 

BENFORD: Well, I am. I’m a professor at U.C. Irvine.

 

JT: So you haven’t gone to full-time writing?

 

BENFORD: No, I never will. I mean, I’ve always thought it was too dangerous to be a full-time writer. Based on the experience of many of my friends, at least, who fall to alcoholism, bad work habits, drugs, a rather more interesting sex life. . . . But, then, I’ll defer to Greg Bear for that!

 

BEAR: Perversions he doesn’t approve of, so.

 

JT: Or as yet undreamt of.

 

BEAR: Well, those illusions, there we go back to those illusions again. What if your Mantis starts doing sexual experiments?

 

BENFORD: Well, the Mantis does do sexual experiments.

 

JT:  Hmmm.  Now, Greg, how about you—are you teaching at all?

 

BEAR: No, just lecturing off and on. No, teaching is hard work. And also I find that, with teaching, you have to remember how you use your own hundred set of caterpillar legs. And then you think about it, and then you stumble and fall in the ditch the next time you try to dance. So this is a metaphor for saying that, if you teach writing, which is probably what I’d only be qualified to teach, you’ll get in trouble with your own writing. ‘Cause you’re going back over basics all the time. You can glide into that space where, you know, you don’t even think about it.

 

JT: So there’s too much self-consciousness—?

 

BEAR: Imagine a sports figure teaching how to play baseball, or do ping-pong. Or imagine a great ballerina teaching ballet. They usually don’t until after they’ve retired. There’s a reason for that. You’re going over the basics again and again and again. And basics are what you want to forget about when you’re at the top of your form.

 

BENFORD: I would never teach writing precisely because I enjoy the fact that I can do it without thinking about it. That I do it intuitively, and that’s why it’s recreation, and it’s always been easy for me to, say, write novels because it was relaxing. If it became a full-time job I think it would be horrific.

 

BEAR: But how about in science? Does teaching science impede your ability to do theoretical science?

 

BENFORD: You know, I don’t find that it does. I teach plasma physics, astrophysics, cosmology, and it’s pleasant to reexamine the basics. Every once in a while in teaching a course, I’ve gotten an idea for something I could do just because I was forced to revisit the basics and think about them again. Trying to explain something to someone can clarify it to yourself.

 

BEAR: Why isn’t that true about doing writing, then?

 

BENFORD: It’s not true for me because writing is very intuitive for me. It’s like— Suppose someone wanted to say, Tell me how to make love. Well, I might be able to show you, but tell?

 

BEAR: See, he is the Mantis!

 

JT: Well, then you how do you keep close to the scientific community? Do you still maintain a contact there?

 

BEAR: All the time. It’s fun to talk about science.  The thing about scientists is they don’t have a lot of people who are willing to talk to them on a serious and listening level. You know, where you listen to what they’re saying and come back with interesting questions. So science fiction writers kind of often do that. And that makes them great conversation victims for scientists. But we’re willing victims, because we get our story ideas from a lot of those discourses. The other thing about talking to scientists is, science has a personality and a culture, and just as you would have to interview police detectives to understand about, you know, writing mysteries and so on, talking to scientists, you get the feeling of the rhythm of their speech, how they use words, and how they interact with each other that’s essential to creating the characters of the story.

 

BENFORD: Oh, to be sure.

 

 

 

THE SCIENTIST AS HERO

JT:  Gregory Benford, So many of these topics and ideas can be found in your novel, Timescape.  In the first place, it seems to me as a layperson to say a lot about the life of a scientist, particularly the physicist, and the pressures under which scientists operate—all about getting along and getting the grants and the tenure, and all of that kind of thing.

 

BENFORD: Right. I realized somewhere in the late ‘70s that this enormously influential culture had no one writing novels about science and scientists.

 

BEAR: Well, C.P. Snow, in something like The New Men..

 

BENFORD: Right, but who had by the time he started writing novels actually stopped being a scientist. But yes. There are fewer, fewer examples. And I thought, wow, what a rich ground. And the most exciting thing to me in science is discovery. And discovery of the new is the cutting edge of science fiction, in my opinion. You cannot do that which you cannot first imagine. And that’s true of scientists, too. So scientists have to have imagination. They are not just bookkeepers.

 

JT: Icarus flew long before we had airplanes.

 

BENFORD: Right.

 

BEAR: The difference between Snow and Benford is that, in Snow’s books, nothing significant is discovered. It’s all about  the process of the characters involved. It’s a social priority. There’s not really a deep novel about discovery. Timescape is all about something really cool being discovered. And that’s kind of difference between the literary attitude that man is the measure of all things—and therefore we shall write about man—and the science fiction novel which says that while man’s interesting, the universe is terrific!  So what is man going to measure and discover?

 

BENFORD: Right. The interesting thing is that interface between us and the strange. ‘The universe is fundamentally alien and we just keep trying to domesticate it. But there’s always an alien boundary.

 

JT:  There’s time-travel paradoxes aplenty here.  It’s like Chris Marker’s La Jetee, where someone from the future reaches back into the past to alert people to take steps to prevent the disaster threatening the future.  So, we have two time periods, the world of 1963 and of 1998, interacting.  But then, we shift to 1974 and to yet another future time period!  Wow!  I gather that the scientist, Markham, is your kinda guy?

 

BENFORD: Oh yeah. Well, Markham, by no accident, has exactly my biography. And he has my first name. I appear in the novel actually, under two different guises; the other is the California scientist, Gordon Bernstein.  Markham is in 1998 and Gordon is in 1963. You see, it’s all a form of disguised autobiography.  What happens in the last chapter, or I intended to happen, is that Bernstein, in a sense, is in a quantum-mechanical state.  Time is a loop, where cause-and-effect mean nothing.  He sort of is stuck in between, and he becomes aware of how contingent his present is.  And so he goes in and out of states.  I attempted to convey what it would be like if you were subject to a quantum-mechanical state and you flipped between one and the other—

JT:  But here, the switch is between ON and OFF?

BENFORD: Yeah, it’s in between.  But I wanted to evoke just the sensation of feeling that time, or the timescape, was variable, that it rippled and moved, instead of time as this solid object that we think of.  So that’s the aesthetic intention in the last five, six pages of the novel.  It’s the attempt to see time as pliable and to see what it would feel like if it were pliable.

JT: And there’s this wonderful sort of elegiac quality to those final scenes in the dying world of England, when we see Peterson going back to his home, which is now a fortress. But it—and I mean this as an absolute compliment—it kind of reminded me of R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s one of the great end-of-the-world scenes I’ve ever seen, not because it’s a graphic description of cataclysm, but the quiet despair of how the characters are approaching their end

BENFORD: The Hopkins Manuscript? I’ll have to read it.  My intention in Timescape was to say that Peterson is a guy who is an alpha-male, who treats people like objects, and he’s very good at women, and he’s, you know, upper class and all this, and he’s planning for the collapse all along, and he gets into his redoubt and then realizes that he’s still contingent—dependent upon the people in the community and they don’t owe him. And then there’s this feeling of dread that he’s in a corner, and he can’t get out, and he thought he was so smart, but he’d forgotten that you have to not treat people like objects.

JT:  Greg Bear, where are you in your books?

 

BEAR: I’m God. So I’m in all of my books!  No, I just borrow stuff from my various, you know, subconscious processes and they become different characters, [modeled] somewhat after people in the real world. Mostly I model on their realities, their biographies, but their internal processes I have to think of in my own terms.

 

 

SOME GOTHIC GHOSTS:  A DIGRESSION

JT:  Greg, while I’m at it, I just wanted to go back to Dead Lines.  Based upon the things of yours I’ve read, it does seem to be a departure.  You’ve called it “science fiction,” but it is a ghost story, too, isn’t it?  I mean, you have these wireless phones that open gateways to ghosts and fiends.

 

BEAR:  Well, it’s a real gothic story, in the sense that you blur the lines between life and death, don’t you?  In the story, the world is running out of bandwidth, and there’s a new source of forbidden information channels that reach into the regions of the Dead and release all kinds of dreadful things.

 

JT:  Your Dedication certainly proclaims your love for those great “ghosters” like M.R. James, Le Fanu, H. P. Lovecraft, and Peter Straub.  And I’m glad to see you mention Shirley Jackson.

 

BEAR:  They all write ghost stories.  But Jackson has this female’s perspective on ghosts.  There’s some pretty horrific stuff in The Haunting of Hill House. The ghosts are obviously there to scare the piss out of you, but they’re taking pleasure in it.

 

JT:  She loves to play us for suckers.

 

BEAR: She does, but nevertheless there’s evil in the house. It’s not as if she’s only saying this house could be your own psychology staring at you.

 

JT:  Even when she’s not dealing in ghosts but disturbed personalities she’s still terrifying.  I’m thinking of the one about the multiple personalities, The Bird’s Nest.  That may be one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read, although I’m not quite sure why.

 

BEAR: Well, it’s just that all the character’s personalities are in a sense so isolated from each other.  Most of her main female characters in her stories are very, very disturbed emotionally. They have no connection to themselves. They’re searching for a home.  And sometimes it results in damage to the self, like in Hill House.  And in other cases it’s damage to others that we see in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Bird’s Nest. And then you think of the kind of extended garden party horrors of The Sundial, and after the end of the world. She was a very hard-minded and yet elegant writer.

 

JT: Who thought she was a witch.

 

BEAR: Who may have thought she was a witch. Probably her parents and her children thought she was a witch, too.  There are other writers I admire.  You mentioned M.R. James, who wrote about things that may or may not be ghosts, but they’re definitely not of our universe! And Lovecraft takes that same idea. They borrow those ideas from people like Arthur Machen and from William Hope Hodgson. Now, I love all of those writers. I just think they’re very interesting spiritual writers. But it’s a skewed spirituality, sort of a dire spirituality.  What I want to do is use a scientific theory to give you experiences you’ve never had before, but in a familiar way, and what is that but the ghost story? But it’s ghosts like you’ve never seen them before, in contexts that you’ve never really experience, but there’s enough of an underpinning and a mythos to what you’re seeing that it almost makes sense, and that’s what provides the scare.  You can tie this into experiences you or someone in your family may actually have had. You can say, Oh, I see that. ‘Cause I borrowed it not just from ghost stories but from people who have actually seen ghosts. Which you gotta do when you’re refreshing the medium.  And the main point of the book is to scare the pants off you, because that’s a lovely experience. And then you can turn the last page, and you can close it, and you can go to sleep.  That’s a very cozy feeling—

 

JT: —and eventually go to sleep.

 

BEAR:  Right.  Eventually go to sleep. Some people have complained about Dead Lines that way.  But that’s the kind of ghost story I love. For me, the ghost stories don’t scare me so much as they are almost a spiritual experience.  You’re getting access to what could be a view of reality beyond what you could possibly know now, and to me, how is that different from reading Olaf Stapledon? You know. And science fiction in its extreme metaphysical forms does that to you. It exalts you. And a good ghost story can do that, too.

 

JT:   What are some of your top ten ghostly tales, and why. It’s so much fun to talk about ghost stories with people that know what they’re talking about.

 

BEAR: Well, I like both movies and ghost stories.

 

JT: Let’s start with the British master, William Hope Hodgson.  Lovecraft loved his work.

 

BEAR: Hodgson? Well, brilliant in many different ways. Some of his stories are a little disappointing because his psychic sleuth, Carnacki, sometimes finds out there’s no supernatural element involved in his investigations.  But sometimes they are, like in “The Hog” and “The Whistling Room.”  So at least he wasn’t constantly delivering the message that there’s nothing scary going on here.

 

JT: But what’s going on with Carnacki’s scientific apparatus?  Seems like he’s a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, experimenting with all kinds of electrical devices. . . he even seems to be anticipating television.

 

BEAR: Well, there is a lot of that. That’s actually out of the science of the turn of the century.  Hodgson is part a science fiction writer, part a fantasy writer, part a horror writer, so it’s one third here, another third there, and another. . . . But his The Night Land is a brilliant novel, scary as hell; but really oddly written, very tough to get into. Some of the visions in The Night Land I actually incorporated into a novella set in the Eon universe called The Way of All Ghosts, and dedicated it to Hodgson. But I might go back to The Night Land again. His The House on the Borderland has got to be one of the great visionary novels of all time. And it’s just, it’s compellingly readable.  And then you go to M.R.  James and you get, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad” and nine or ten others that are just sheer masterpieces of terror.  And, forgive me here, you get an H.P. Lovecraft, who launched into a method of using circumlocuitous prose to create a sensation of disorientation that really is scary. I mean, it’s not this, it’s not that, it’s the old Hindu Neti neti, you know, undescribable.  Like At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  I didn’t put Edgar Allan Poe in that list, which I find interesting. Poe, of course, is the precursor to both mysteries and science fiction and all that stuff.  But he didn’t  write that many ghost stories.  Resurrected corpses don’t exactly qualify as ghosts to me.!

 

JT:  Now, how about Walter De la Mare?

 

BEAR:  I haven’t read a lot of his stories. They’re a little on the soft side for me. I want the really intellectual thrills and his stories tend to be more traditional stories. Kind of like Marjorie Bowen, kind of like Henry James, yeah. And they’re sometimes gentler. There’s a kind of a gentleness about De la Mare’s ghosts stories. Except for The Return, I think you were quoting, which can be a little scary. So I haven’t put him in there because he hasn’t influenced me that much. The names I put on that list were those who really have shaped the way my novel comes out, because they’ve influenced me directly.

 

 

FINALE:  DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING?

 

JT:  Obviously, living and dying are complicated elements in your stories.  The divisions between them seem to, well, get blurred, as you say.  In Darwin’s Radio, a new generation in effect is born twice.  And in Dead Lines people die twice.

 

BEAR: Right.

 

JT: What’s going on?

 

BEAR: I’ve long believed that coming into this world and going out of this world are the two hardest things you’ll ever do. You get your ticket stamped going in, you get your ticket stamped going out. It’s just miserable. It’s traumatic, it’s miserable. And the question is at that point, why is there faith, why is there a need for faith? Because of these two truths. So the people say there must have been something before and there must be something after. Interestingly enough, we don’t talk about what comes before.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate, even in a science fiction story to say, What if there is something beyond our ken?  But the interesting thing about the reaction to Dead Lines is, I think, that it’s got great reviews and it’s been called a fantasy novel. I don’t regard it as a fantasy novel. It’s a discovery of a new realm in a way that’s very frightening. And structurally that’s no different for me than what happens in Blood Music, which describes microscopic medical machines, where DNA is treated as a computational system.  Which also, I think, would be very frightening. People hate two things. They hate biological transformation which is equated with disease. Okay, something changes, then it must go wrong. Or ageing. And then they hate the notion of other kinds of change that lead to death, which is the ultimate change. But what if that’s not the end of the changes? And in Dead Lines I want to give you the impression that death is a process that has rules and is very, very moving and confusing and also strips away from you the things that you no longer need.  I borrowed this from Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay for a movie called Jacob’s Ladder. (There’ll be some spoilers if you print this!)  Jacob’s Ladder is a marvelous story about the supernatural, kind of a version of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where a man who was in Vietnam is going through the process of having all of his earthly persiflage stripped away from him. For him, the perspective is that he’s seeing demons. But in the end of the story it’s not that they’re demons. It’s that they’re there to strip away what you don’t need in the process of dying.  There’s a little bit of this sort of thing in Stephen King’s The Langoliers, which is one of the more interesting time travel stories, ’cause it’s an organic vision of time.

 

JT: Which is gobbling up the universe.

 

BEAR: Gobbling up and changing, and it’s unpredictable. It’s not mathematically linear and predictable. I kinda like that. It’s also a very scary story. And so what I’m saying is, What if ghosts are dead skin left behind? Then are there spiritual mites that chew that up and get it out of the way? And that’s a very natural process, and, again, most of my stories involve the ecology of natural processes.

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE:  Here we come to an end—or is it a new beginning?  We recall the adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac that began this book.  He had sailed to the Moon and beyond, ultimately to the sun.  Even his death, moreover, mere mortality, failed to slow him down.  Witness his epitaph:

All weary with the earth too soon

I took my flight into the skies,

Beholding there the sun and moon

Where now the Gods confront my eyes.

Like de Bergerac, Bear and Benford, along with the other figures in this book, have embarked on their own imaginative odysseys.  Occasionally they come back to gather around the cosmic campfire to share with us their adventures—with advantages.  All of them found in all the riddles and mysteries of Man and the Cosmos, as Bear reminds us, “conflicts that made for great stories. . . .”

In conclusion, as we continue our own forays into the wondrous, we would do well to bear in mind what the celebrated gothic fantasist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, wrote so long ago—

“It is said that the miraculous has vanished from the earth, but I do not                            believe it.  The miracles are still there, for even if we are no longer willing                   to call by that name the most wonderful aspects of our daily life, because                            we have managed to deduce from a succession of events a law of cyclic                            recurrence; nevertheless, there often passes through that cycle a                                     phenomenon which puts all our wisdom to shame, and which, in our                            stupid obstinacy, we refuse to believe because we are unable to                                     comprehend it.”[10]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


            [1] Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act V/

 

            [2] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (New York:  Vintage Press, 2010), 459.

 

            [3] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), 381-382.

 

            [4] Stephen Jay Gould, “Modified Grandeur,” Natural History, Vol. 14, No. 20 (March 1993), 14-20.

 

            [5] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1996), 35.

            [6] William Jaames, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Barnes & Noble reprint (New York:  Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 449-450.

 

            [7] Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2005), 291.

 

            [8] Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience (New York:  Penguin Press, 2006), 31.

 

            [9]Freeman Dyson, “When Science & Poetry Were Friends,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 13 (Auagust 13, 2009), 8.

            [10] E.T.A. Hoffmann, trans. Ronald Tayler, The Devil’s Elixirs (London:  John Calder, 1963), 249.

Jaames, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Barnes & Noble reprint (New York:  Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 449-450.

 

            [7] Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2005), 291.

 

            [8] Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience (New York:  Penguin Press, 2006), 31.

 

            [9]Freeman Dyson, “When Science & Poetry Were Friends,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 13 (Auagust 13, 2009), 8.

            [10] E.T.A. Hoffmann, trans. Ronald Tayler, The Devil’s Elixirs (London:  John Calder, 1963), 249.


SHAKESPEARE, SCIENCE FICTION, AND ALL THAT

Published by Gregory Benford on June 21st, 2015

Big Universe 

 

In 2000 Russell Blackford and I wrote parallel essays on the issue of what great works of science fiction might last, and parallels to the greats of conventional literature. These appeared in Guy Lillian’s fanzine Challenger , #13 in Fall 2000, later reprinted in Steam Engine Time and Tirra Lirra. Here they are together, with no attempt to update the views of either author. As usual with my essays, I’m attempting to survey the landscape (to essay it, in the older sense) and inspire thinking, not to reach an answer to which all will subscribe.

 

 

 

WAITING FOR SHAKESPEARE ?

Gregory Benford

 

 

When I began writing science fiction, as a graduate student in 1964, it was commonplace to regard the sf field as just entering its great phase. Of course there had been the Golden Age of 1939-45, and arguably a Silver Age of the early 1950s…but 1964 was rife with the hubbub of the early New Wave, remember, and promise seemed to brim everywhere.

An academic then referred to the field as “waiting for its Shakespeare”–that is, for a towering figure who could take the form to its’ heights, never to be equaled. The Bard came upon the Elizabethan stage and drama has never been the same since. Strikingly, he came early in the history of modern drama, though the Greeks had been staging great plays nearly two millennia before, and wrenched the form around until it accommodated the sensibilities of a quite different culture.

Other critics such as Brian Aldiss, particularly in his Billion Year Spree (later updated to Trillion), argued that H.G. Wells may have been the founder of modern sf and its Shakespeare all in one. Jules Verne came before, and in his attention to detail and plausibility may be said to be the founder of hard sf, but Verne mostly stuck to adventure stories, not heart-strumming dramas, “real novels.” Verne was not broad enough.

Wells indeed did lay down many of the great idea-novels of the genre (though it wasn’t a genre then), principally in his first decade: The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man. When has any writer had such a run, such a gusher of creation? Of course there were antecedents to many of his ideas. But he brought them to full, heartfelt dimension with true dramatic clout—and often, in novels that we would term novellas today, marvels of compression.

This he had in common with Shakespeare, who came to the young English stage and made it grow up.

But the New Wave advocates felt that truly adult sf would come only after the methods and crafts of mainstream literary styles were imported to bring to fruition sf’s themes. And Tom Disch did produce Camp Concentration, Joanna Russ And Chaos Died, Samuel Delany both Nova and Dahlgren, Roger Zelazny This Immortal, Harlan Ellison in groundbreaking short stories, while Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard had their peaks as well. Sadly, most of these works are long out of print, perhaps to be revived in a zombie-like way by on-demand publishing, which will cater to small audiences wishing to catch up on some of the fine works of the last half century.

But Shakespeare? None of these authors became the commanding figure Wm. S. was in his age. (Or may have been. There is curiously little documentation of Shakespeare the man—no letters, occasional pieces, not a single original manuscript. This has led some to suppose the Edward Devere in fact wrote the works, with the actor Shakespeare as a useful front. This leads to a wholly different reading of the plays and sonnets—an intriguing possibility, reminding us that even great figures can carry with them an artful ambiguity, to this day.)

How come? Perhaps because no one can command the range of science, fiction and worldly knowledge demanded of a great novelist now. That may be why we have no looming figures of Tolstoy’s scale. Science fiction, which takes on the largest issues confronting the human heart and head, demands much more than a conventional novelist needs to muster.

Maybe it’s impossible to become the Shakespeare of sf any longer?

Or…could we somehow have missed him? (Or her?!)

I’ve seen a heady rush sweep through the field as new, powerful writers arrived, at times greeted with hosannas that suggested the arrival of The Master. Robert A. Heinlein enjoyed that reception, and in many ways he was the American Wells, greatly extending the range of ideas and methods of a genre he entered fairly early.

There have been others who got a big reception. Alfred Bester, who had dash and verve and, alas, left quickly. Ursula LeGuin’s early Ace novels led to a remarkable string: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and on into some fine work. The first edition of the Nicholls & Clute SF Encyclopedia pronounced her the best living sf writer. But while her acceptance by the mainstream is unparalleled in sf by any other than Clarke, her highly successful career since has not been of Shakespearean dimension. Perhaps this will later seem just a change in fashion, for LeGuin wrote primarily “social sf” that resonated with the questioning of fundamentals going on in the advanced nations in the 1960s and 1970s. When society reinspects itself again, her repute may benefit. To me, The Dispossessed is the best consideration of the nature of utopia literature has yet produced–and it has a scientist as its central figure.

The second edition of the SF Encyclopedia made a case for Gene Wolfe as the greatest living sf author. Admittedly, their case seemed a bit half-hearted, and they made no such case for LeGuin (fickle critics!). I like his work, he may be our best stylist–but I doubt he’s our Bard, for reaching a large audience is surely a signature, and Gene is a cultivated taste.

Similarly, we saw Dan Simmons heralded by some as a writer who knew his science (not from experience; he got it from reading, just as the Bard apparently got his knowledge of, say, Italy) and had a flair for novels. He found a large audience, too. Greg Bear fit that description as well, and has produced fine work. Joe Haldeman we greeted in the mid-1970s in the backwash of the New Wave, and for a while held the record for the highest advance paid for an sf novel ($50,000–it seemed huge, then). Joe probably never thought of Shakespeare; Hemingway is his literary idol. William Gibson made a big splash in 1984 with a polished, insightful style that unhinged an aspect of techo-culture we had little glimpsed before. Further, he rode the wave created by the films Blade Runner (noir future) and Tron  (virtual reality dramas, jacking in). But cyberpunk was, like social sf, a passing taste–still powerful, but not a revolution in the sense that John Campbell’s first team wrought one in that distant first Golden Age.

So it seems no recent arrival is the Bard in disguise.

Consider a smaller question, then: who is the reigning figure, still alive, in modern sf? My money would be on two old favorites, Arthur Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Clarke gave us 2001 and Bradbury The Martian Chronicles, works that will live a very long while indeed. Bradbury says he’s not an sf writer, but he clearly came out of the magazines that termed themselves that.

But is either our Shakespeare? Somehow I doubt that either has the range to deserve the label. Of the two, Clarke comes closest, for my money. His amusing essays and Tales from the White Hart show his comic side, while many stories and novels display his grasp of the largest scales available to the modern intellect.

It is worth pondering who we will have to fill their shoes. Among living American sf writers,. Fred Pohl and Robert Silverberg probably have spanned the greatest range, summoned up deep emotions and plumbed the reaches of many ideas. But neither of these fine gentlemen would pretend to be a Shakespeare comparable to Wells.

And maybe there’s a reason for that.

Sf has become the preeminent genre, emerging from lowly pulp origins to rule the visual media. Alas, it is still a stepped-upon subsection of the lit’ry world, excluded from serious consideration, relegated to a box in the back at the New York Times Book Review.

But the written forms feed the visual ones, as many authors (like me) who have had their work purloined by screenwriters have woefully found. So we are influential, if not rich or famous. So here’s an audacious thought: maybe our Shakespeare was Stanley Kubrick.

After all, in a stunning series he gave us in a mere few years Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange—all near-future works of genius, derived from novels, two of them acknowledged as sf. They showed us worlds nobody had yet visited, and made his name. When Kubrick died, he was going to resume work on a film about artificial intelligence, on which he had already lavished years of script labor, working in turn with Brian Aldiss, Bob Shaw and Ian Watson. There was a flurry of speculation that Stephen Spielberg was going to take up the project, and work proceeds apace.

It’s startling to entertain the notion of Kubrick as our Shakespeare—but remember, the Bard primarily wrote for a visual medium, too.  And in keeping with our station in life, nobody in the general culture thinks of Kubrick as a science fiction person at all…

Still…there is a deeper problem here, rummaging around for a science fictional Shakespeare. We are the genre, the inventor of fandom itself, fanzines, big fan conventions, a fount of cultural innovation. But rather than see ourselves as a partitioned piece of literature, better to say that we are a continuing conversation.

No other genre refers back so far and so often to its Golden Age(s), citing works and comparing writers—just as this column has done. In weeding out the new but derivative, by holding it up to the light of other days, we confer Grand Master status only upon those who truly extend our mental frontiers, and relegate those who merely rearrange conceptual deck chairs to the lesser ranks (where, these days, they get stuck writing franchise fiction and work-for-hire media tie-ins, just to make ends meet.)

We inspect ideas anew in ways other genres do not. Where in mysteries, say, does one see a gang of young Turks write a three-nvoel sequence to reimagine a classic work? Yet that’s what I did with Greg Bear and David Brin, when we wrote the Second Foundation Trilogy. Isaac Asimov’s grand ideas rewarded revisiting, we thought, seen through the eyes of another generation. Of course, some Asimov fans thought this was overtly a bad idea. We expected that, along with the hard core of fans who do not want their view of the sacred texts challenged.  All this is part of the debate, too.

Most generally, our field comprises a way for the general culture to see itself in a fresh light.  Science particularly has always used sf to think about the implications of its own work. That’s why so many scientists have written sf (again, like me—a phenomenon you can study further in some essays at my website, available through authorcafe.com).

Rather than look upon our great works as resembling classical symphonies, to be played in grand halls to a passive audience, think of us as a jazz band—swinging down Basin Street in full voice, blaring our messages, running new riffs on old standards, fresh melodic lines, improvisation as the blood and rhythm of the enterprise itself. Our band’s sign might well read,

JAZZ, THAT’S WHAT WE ARE.

–because it’s what we truly do well.

And New Orleans never needed a Shakespeare.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 

Shakespeare, Science Fiction and all that Jazz

Russell Blackford

 

Gregory Benford writes that science fiction is an improvisational artform which, like jazz, does not need a towering figure such as Shakespeare. I agree that sf is highly improvisational in the way that he describes–and, to that extent, the analogy to jazz seems right. As for his “audacious thought” that Kubrick may be sf’s Shakespeare, well I see the point–my only query is whether it’s all that audacious. Before I reached this part of his essay, I was wondering if the towering works of the genre might not be prose narratives at all–novels and short stories–but certain films, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Those two thoughts, then, sf’s improvisational nature and the importance of cinema, are plausible and consistent with each other. For all that, I think that the tone of Benford’s article is a little too sanguine, a little complacent, about current sf and where the genre is heading.

Science fiction started out as a genre of prose fiction, but that soon changed in the age of radio and cinema. Narratives about rapid social change, the future, and the impact of science and technology can be told in any form that lends itself to narrative in general: epic recitation, live drama, prose fiction, comics, radio, cinema, television, or whatever the future has in store for us. And, while narrative is central to sf as an artform, sf-related ideas can be developed and debated in non-narrative ways, such as in lyric poetry and literary criticism. Science fiction motifs provide images for non-narrative visual art forms to an extent where sf illustrators often seem to be lionized more than the actual writers. At the same time, a parallel set of ideas infuses much modern philosophical writing.

Our culture provides vast scope for creative reactions to science, innovation and the future. Think of a great conversation spreading out from the science labs into every other place where we encounter thought and art, from technical philosophy to comic books and computer games. From the perspective of committed sf writers, fans and other dedicated sf readers, printed sf is at the center of this huge conversation. But at the same time, we have people “doing sf”–creating narratives about innovation and the future–who have little connection with the fannish or professional sf communities.

An interesting publishing phenomenon in my country, Australia, has been the recent success of a book called The Deep Field by a young literary writer, James Bradley. This book is set in the future, is largely about the psychological impact of radical life extension, and uses other sf-style technologies such as full sensory-immersion virtual reality. It has been embraced by the literary mainstream because of its dense, often poetic, language and its commitment to in-depth portrayal of character. It is not marketed or discussed as an sf novel. As it happens, Bradley is well-versed in sf and has written for the New York Review of Science Fiction, but he has no connection to fandom and no one here (except me) would think of him as in any way an sf writer. I’m sure we could recall other works such as this, part of the cultural conversation that I’ve referred to, but not pigeon-holed as sf.

Although this larger conversation is going on, what happens in the fannish and professional sf communities (as if these can be entirely separated) is an important part of it. It’s not surprising that sf narratives by the committed professional writers should feed off each other and improvise with ideas–yes, much like jazz. At the same time, it’s not surprising that a dominant entertainment medium such as the cinema should generate the most prominent individual narratives, as seen by society at large. It shouldn’t even be surprising if some of the most important sf works of all were movies, such as Kubrick’s 2001, rather than stories told in printed prose.

This sort of reflection makes Benford’s ideas seem very attractive, but it also exposes a problem. Consider how few towering works of sf ever came out of 20th century cinema. That leads me back to my point that Benford is a little too sanguine. For a start, it’s not obvious that improvisational artforms and those which produce towering figures, reaching or approaching the heights of Shakespeare, are mutually exclusive categories.

Of course, it’s difficult to compare artforms that emphasize real-time performances and those which leave behind compositions that can be preserved for posterity. Prior to modern forms of audio and visual recording, the work of actors and musical performers was essentially ephemeral, unlike that of playwrights or composers (though this, too, was often lost). A musical form emphasizing one-off improvisations might have towering geniuses, but their genius could not be preserved like the text (even if corrupt) of a play, or like an operatic score.

Some compositional artforms are, indeed, highly improvisational in the sense that Benford identifies. Science fiction is only one case in point. Although the emphasis is not on performances that might change every evening on a musician’s whim or electric light of inspiration, there is a developing body of work that reacts to previous work, sometimes by way of irony, satire, inversion, parody or mockery, or simply by “making it new” in keeping with the sensibilities and techniques of later times. This kind of self-reflection and improvisation is common to many artforms, not only jazz, with its radical emphasis on actual performance. Nor is it inconsistent with the presence of individual composers and works of genius.

Consider the tradition of English poetry. If we observe its development from, say, Milton to Yeats, we see a process of conversation and improvisation going on, similar to that which Benford identifies in the sf field. We see this in both the overall contours of the form’s history and in much of the detail. Pope and Dryden react against Milton in a particular way, Blake and Shelley in another (and the generations of Blake and Shelley react fiercely against Pope and Dryden!). As we work our way through Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Yeats–reaching towards the present day–we can see the constant reworking of themes, ideas, even lines, from poet to poet. This has not prevented some individual works appearing sublime. If sf has failed to produce figures at least approaching the towering genius of Shakespeare–its Miltons and Shelleys–the improvisational nature of the genre is not an adequate reason.

Of course, it may simply be too early to make judgments about this. After all, are we convinced that mainstream contemporary literature has produced writers on a level with Milton or the great Romantic poets? No, but I’d be more confident of the place of Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, or of prose fiction writers such as Salman Rushdie, when judgments are made in two hundred years’ time, than I would be about any current sf writer.

I do have concerns about the direction taken by mainstream literary writing during the 20th century, at the way some of the great Modernists–Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound–gave permission for those who followed to produce fragmented, obscure, essentially private works in a manner almost unprecedented in the literary traditions that I know. This has opened a gulf of incomprehension between much serious literature and the general reading public. However, sf suffers different problems that are associated with its very popularity.

Perhaps Joyce and the others stretched the traditional forms as far as they could go, at least in certain respects to do with the intensity of language and the impression of psychological depth. That may be one reason, quite aside from sheer technological change, why it is timely that cinema and television have taken over as the popular narrative media. However, the technological and social circumstances we live in have further impacts.

For a start, cinema and television are essentially collaborative artforms. Notwithstanding the mystique of the director as auteur, it is not possible to speak of individuals working in cinema as equivalent to Shakespeare. If a comparison is made between Shakespeare and Kubrick, I want to ask, Kubrick working with what scriptwriter? Kubrick working with what specific actors? Kubrick, even, with whose special effects? Perhaps sf’s Shakespeare is not Kubrick or any other individual, but just the free-floating world of modern cinema working at its best. In that case, we could look for a body of towering creative work coming out of Hollywood and other film capitals, without expecting one auteur to dominate.

However, what do we actually see? The dominant sf works in our culture are entertaining, in many ways dazzling, technical products, sometimes, as with the first two Stars Wars movies, given additional strength and resonance by their respectful treatment of mythic archetypes. But the most prominent sf is essentially a body of work aimed at children and teenagers. That, of course, is not a contemptible thing. The production of intelligent narrative for young people, in whatever medium, is an honorable and difficult occupation. All the same, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and Yeats would not have produced such monumental works of literature if they were writing essentially for kids.

We have reached a situation where the cultural dominance of sf is closely associated with the marketing of our most popular works of narrative art (not to mention music) for a young audience. The dominance of sf in cinema has been achieved overwhelmingly by works aimed for this market. Meanwhile, our culture’s truly sophisticated art, aimed at well-informed adults, has become inaccessible to the general population in a way that would have puzzled Shakespeare.

In that perspective, the dominance of sf in the form of Stars Wars movies and similar is not such a cause for rejoicing. I enjoy these movies and would defend them in some contexts, but they appeal mainly to the kid in me, not the adult. By contrast, Shakespeare appealed to all classes and degrees of education, and to adults across the full range of sophistication, in a way that popular narrative art seldom does today, and the most popular sf even more seldom. Perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey is an exception, a work that can genuinely be compared to a Shakespeare play, but how many sf movies made since then have appealed to the emotions and intellects of experienced, well-educated adults? By contrast, how many have been downright insulting to our emotions and our intelligence? Too many.

I hasten to interpolate that some very interesting and intelligent prose sf is being produced by such writers as Greg Egan, Greg Bear and Gregory Benford, by Melissa Scott, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, Ian Banks, Gene Wolfe, Jamil Nasir, William Gibson. . . . The list goes on and on; I could name many others. But these are not figures on a par with Shakespeare or Milton, Shelley or Yeats–or, if any of them are, it is not yet obvious. Sure, their work is sufficiently valuable to justify our advocacy of it to the literary mainstream. Again, some of the blockbuster movies (Blade Runner is a personal favorite) do have much to recommend them. And I’ve mentioned that some writers who essentially work outside the genre produce impressive one-off sf works that are worth hunting down.

But we’ve reached a situation where sophisticated audiences, mainstream writers, most literary critics and (I suspect) the Hollywood hacks who buy sf ideas and popularize the genre all view “science fiction” as essentially a lurid variety of children’s entertainment. This is not, as I once thought, a product of ignorance and prejudice; it is quite understandable. The genre has come a long way in its public prominence, but its image has not improved in the process. Prose sf is now dominated, in market terms, by media tie-ins that lack even the knowingness and high production values of the movies and television series on which they are based. If we expect sf to be a literature of ideas, a conversation about science, innovation and the future, we are justified in feeling disappointed. Science fiction may have become a dominant narrative genre but only at the price (all too often) of giving up its heart.

 


The future is almost here …for we, the haves

Published by Gregory Benford on June 18th, 2015

Beauty-of-Math-Illustrated

A meditation on “The Singularity Is Near,” Ray Kurzweil, Viking, 652 pp., $29.95

 

Gregory Benford

 

If you were a thousand times smarter and lived for centuries, what would you do? Finally write that novel burning inside you? Hitch a ride to the stars? Assume godlike tasks? Subside into sybaritic debauch? All of the above?

You might be able to squeeze in all that and more if inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil is even half right. He doesn’t buy into the dark worldview of movies like Blade Runner, Mad Max, The Terminator, Waterworld, and similar easy future dystopias. He has immense faith that the next half century or so will see our technologies spawn a new breed of human. They will transcend us with symbiotic advances in GRN–genetics, robotics and nanotechnology – creating “a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability.”

The Singularity is Vernor Vinge’s term, though Kurzweil gives little room to this fact, referring to Vinge as a San Diego mathematician. Vernor introduced it in the 1980s, though I can recall talking to him about such possibilities when we met in graduate school at UC San Diego in the mid-1960s. He supposes that up ahead our technologies will spur us into a gauzy realm of uplifting life, and Tramadol medication. Damien Broderick’s The Spike advanced Vinge’s argument with intriguing speculations, especially on advanced artificial intelligence and its links to us. Kurzweil does quote and acknowledge his predecessors a bit, but to him the past is mere prologue.

In the Singular era, which Kurzweil thinks will begin around 2045, interlaced technologies will merge with our minds and bodies, snowballing, erasing the old us/machine barrier. We will download memory, a la our computers, until “the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate.” This sounds like some people I know already.

Kurzweil delves into these labyrinths with dizzying detail, a tale clearly told while staggering in prospect. His “posthumans” will comfortably wear their dazzling high intelligence, durability, swift comprehension, exact memory—just the sort you don’t want to spend relaxed time with, I’d judge. Maybe a bit edgy and obsessive, but great fun at times..

For Kurzweil, trends will accelerate as miniaturization and computational power spread. He foresees a quick, interactive world. Our cities will talk incessantly with our smart bodies, which sport fetchingly fashioned smart clothes. Our minds will swim in a virtual reality created by taking Tramadol drug. Cell-size devices will cruise our bloodstreams. These advances and their far-reaching effects, he says, are driven by science fiction and science alike. Already they sneak up on us in wild’n crazy rides like “Minority Report” and “Being John Malkovich,” mainlining the future.

Kurzweil marshals impressive arguments, waving away

Stephen Jay Gould’s view that scientific revolutions reduce our stature on the universal stage. Instead, Kutzweil thinks we’re the Next Big Thing in the galaxy, when our brains and bodies really reach their potential. To him, “when scientists become a million times more intelligent and operate a million times faster, an hour would result in a century of progress (in today’s terms).”

Of course, these visions are as untested as they are seductive. Predictions from his earlier books ( “The Age of Spiritual Machines” and “The Age of Intelligent Machines”) have come somewhat true, but much of his thinking tends to the classic techno-visionary. He spreads buoyant optimism, ignoring darker aspects of progress. He is more eager to think about the life-enhancing powers of nanotechnology than to wonder what happens if cell-size computers within the human body run amok.

For perspective, he conducts imaginary conversations with George 2048, a mid-21st-century machine with a reassuring personality. He lets bacteria from two billion years ago argue among themselves about the wisdom of banding together into multicellular life-forms.

Kurzweil even poses for a crazed photo with a cardboard “The Singularity Is Near” sign—a funny, defiant touch. He deploys charts, quotations, playful Socratic dialogues and sidebars against the admitted existential risks of exploding infotech, biotech, and nanotech. At times the tone seems almost evangelical–uplifting the Left Behind after the Rapture of the Nerds.

Does this Rapture have to happen?

Expecting unending exponential growth runs afoul of saturations in both technology and human adaptation. Take aviation, a hot technology that took us from Kitty Hawk to the moon in a lifetime. Projecting ahead, futurists might have concluded that by 2000 we would zip off to Europe in our own planes. Bill Gates does, but not the majority. Even he doesn’t vacation on Mars, or even in orbit.

And some will simply reject being transformed, out of aesthetic or religious tastes. Kurzweil argues with straw men about this, but seems unaware that much of humanity may not share his goals. Many, standing on the beach before such a vast, promising ocean, will wonder who will truly voyage upon it?

We already have problems defusing the growing, envy-driven anger of the world’s majority. Islamic terrorism springs from this, in part.

Among science fiction’s most popular recent Doomsday Scenarios are about Singularities gone wrong. Artificial Intelligences or nanotechnology swarms turn on their makers.  Or humans characters who,  becoming demigods, grow smug and unlikable.

These fictions express an innate, wary inertia in us. It also emerges in the increasing calls for an uplifting of our fellows, right now.

We certainly need such material expansion, while minimizing the impact of our growing numbers. The greatest agenda of this century could be the expansion of human horizons by lifting the bulk of humanity to a standard of living enjoyed by the advanced nations. That would complete the promise begun 500 years ago by the first European expansion.

We will need those informed minds, even if we have artificial ones. We forget that most of humanity still labors in routine manual labor. What Einsteins or Beethovens are walking behind a plow or assembling in a factory, dreaming of a better life?

Only by expanding their conceptual horizons through a modicum of prosperity can we liberate our species from drudgery. Technology can help enormously, but don’t forget pathologically immoral governments.

It’s fun, trying to envision beings who may transcend us but remain human, sort of. Singularities in physics give us problems, as in trying to see beyond a black hole’s event horizon. A social Singularity is similarly opaque, and brings fears of threats to concepts of human nature and individuality. Kurzweil’s discussions don’t resonate as well as science fiction can, but they do artfully envision a breathtakingly better world.

 


TO THE ENDS OF THE UNIVERSE

Published by Gregory Benford on June 5th, 2015

As the most world’s most prominent astronomer, Martin Rees is singularly well qualified to outline the implications of a simple observation—that on the scale of our galaxy, our own species’ evolution is just beginning. This is a truly long range view, done with remarkable skill.

 

This essay he wrote expressly for STARSHIP CENTURY, edited by myself and my brother James. — GB

 

 

                       TO THE ENDS OF THE UNIVERSE

 

Martin  Rees

 

 

Astronomers like myself are  professionally engaged in thinking about huge expanses of space and time. But this doesn’t make us serene and relaxed about the future.   Most of us worry as much as anyone about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow. Nonetheless, our subject does offer a special perspective. We view our home planet in a cosmic context.   We wonder whether there’s life elsewhere in the cosmos. But, more significantly, we’re mindful of the immense future that lies ahead.

 

The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (but maybe not in the Bible Belt, nor in parts of the Islamic world).   We’re  at ease with the idea that our present biosphere is the outcome of four billion years of Darwinian evolution.  But the even longer time-horizons that stretch ahead — though familiar to every astronomer — haven’t permeated our culture to the same extent. Our Sun is less than half way through its life.  It formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. It  will then flare up, engulfing the inner planets and vaporising any life that might then remain on Earth.  But even after the Sun’s demise, the expanding universe will continue — perhaps for ever —  destined to become ever colder, ever emptier.  To quote Woody Allen, ‘eternity is very long, especially towards the end’.   That, at least, is the best long range forecast that cosmologists can offer.

 

Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise 6 billion years hence won’t be human — they’ll be as different from us as we are from a bug.      Posthuman evolution — here on Earth and far beyond — could   be as prolonged as the Darwinian evolution that’s led to us, and even more wonderful.  Indeed this conclusion is strengthened when we realise that future evolution will proceed not on the million-year timescale characteristic of Darwinian selection, but at the much accelerated rate  allowed  by genetic modification and the advance of machine intelligence (and forced by the drastic environmental pressures that would confront  any humans who  were to construct habitats beyond the Earth). Natural selection may have slowed: its rigours are  tempered in civilised countries. But it will be replaced by ‘directed’ evolution.  Already, performance enhancing drugs, genetic modification, cyborg technology, are changing human nature, and these are just precursors of more drastic changes.

 

Darwin himself realised that  “No living species will preserve its unaltered likeness into a distant futurity”. We now know that ‘futurity’ extends far further, and alterations can occur far faster than Darwin  envisioned.  And we know that the cosmos, through which life could spread, offers a far more extensive and varied habitat  than he ever imagined.  So humans are surely  not the terminal  branch of an evolutionary tree, but  a species that emerged early in the overall roll-call of species, with  special promise  for diverse evolution — and perhaps of cosmic significance for jump-starting the transition to silicon-based (and potentially immortal) entities that can  more readily transcend human limitations.

 

We humans are entitled to feel uniquely significant, as the first known species with the power to mould its own future. And we live at a crucial time. Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, and still more lie ahead. But this century may be a defining moment. It’s the first in our planet’s history where one species (ours) has Earth’s future in its hands, and could jeopardise the  immense potential stretching for billions of years. And, more central to the theme of this book, it’s the century when  the spread of life  beyond Earth could begin.

 

A famous picture in the  English edition of  Newton’s ‘Principia’  shows cannon balls being fired from the top of a mountain, If they go fast enough, their trajectory curves downward no more steeply than the Earth curved away underneath it – they  go into orbit. This picture is  still the neatest way to explain orbital flight.  Newton calculated that, for a cannon-ball to achieve an orbital trajectory, its speed must be 18000 miles/hour –far beyond  what was then achievable.

 

Indeed, this speed wasn’t achieved until 1957, when the Soviet Sputnik was launched. Four years later Yuri Gagarin was the first human to go into orbit. Eight years after that, and  only 66 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Neil Armstrong made his ‘one small step’. The Apollo programme was a heroic episode. And it was a long time ago – ancient history to today’s young people. Those in England know that the Americans landed on the Moon, just as they know the Egyptians built pyramids — but both enterprises seem driven by equally arcane goals.

 

Since 1972,  humans have done no more than circle the Earth in low orbit – more recently,  in the International Space Station. This has proved neither very useful nor very inspiring.  But space technology has burgeoned — for communication, environmental monitoring, satnav and so forth. We depend on it every day. And unmanned probes   to other planets have beamed back pictures of  varied and distinctive worlds.

But it has been pictures of the Earth itself, showing how its delicate biosphere contrasts with the sterile moonscape where the astronauts left their footprint, that have  become iconic, especially  for environmentalists. We’ve had these images for 45 years. But suppose some aliens had been viewing such an image for our planet’s entire history,  what would they have seen? Over nearly all that immense time, 4.5 billion years, Earth’s appearance would have altered very gradually. The continents drifted; the ice cover waxed and waned; successive species emerged, evolved and became extinct.

 

But in just  a tiny sliver of the Earth’s history — the last one millionth  part, a few thousand years —  the patterns of  vegetation altered  much faster than  before.  This signalled the  start of agriculture.  The pace of change accelerated as human populations rose. Humanity’s ‘footprint’ got larger because   our species became  more demanding of resources — and also because of population growth.

 

Within  fifty years — little more than  one hundredth of a millionth of the Earth’s age — the carbon dioxide in the  atmosphere began to rise anomalously fast.  And  something else unprecedented  happened:  rockets launched  from the planet’s surface  escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the Moon and planets.

 

If they understood astrophysics, the aliens  could confidently predict that the biosphere  would  face doom in a few billion years when the Sun flares up and dies.    But could they have predicted this sudden ‘fever’  half way through the  Earth’s life  — these human-induced alterations occupying, overall, less than a millionth of the Earth’s elapsed lifetime and seemingly occurring with runaway speed?

 

If they continued to keep watch, what might they witness  in the next hundred years?  Will the spasm be followed by silence? Will the planet make a transition to sustainability?  And, most important of all for the log-term future, will an armada of rockets leaving Earth have led to new communities elsewhere — on Mars and its moons, on asteroids, or freely floating in space?

 

THE NEXT CENTURY

 

Scientific forecasters have a dismal record.  One of my predecessors as Astronomer Royal said, as late as the 1950s, that  space travel was “utter bilge”.  Few in the mid-20th century envisaged the transformative impact of the silicon chip or the double helix.  The iPhone would have seemed magical even 20 years ago.  So, looking even a century ahead we must keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to what may now seem science fiction.   Indeed some proponents of the ‘singularity’ — the takeover of  humanity by intelligent machines — claim this transition could happen within 50 years.

 

Had the momentum  of the 1960s been maintained  over the next 40 years, there would be footprints on Mars by now. But after Apollo  the political impetus for manned spaceflight was lost. This was one of many instances of the widening  gap between what could be achieved technologically, and what is actually done. As with many technical forecasts, we can be more confident of what  could happen than of how soon it will happen. Development of supersonic airliners, for instance, has languished (Concorde having gone the way of the dinosaurs); in contrast, the sophistication and worldwide penetration of internet and smart-phones advanced much faster  than  most forecasters predicted.

 

I’d venture a confident forecast that  during  this  century,  the entire solar system — planets, moons and asteroids —  will  be explored and mapped by flotillas of tiny robotic craft.  The next step would be space mining and fabrication. (And fabrication in space will be a better use of materials mined from asteroids than bringing them back to Earth).  The Hubble Telescope’s successors, with huge gossamer-thin mirrors assembled under zero gravity,  will further expand our vision of stars, galaxies and the wider cosmos.

 

But what role will humans play? There’s no denying that NASA’s  ‘Curiosity’, now trundling across Martian craters, may miss startling discoveries that no human geologist could  overlook. But robotic techniques are advancing fast, allowing ever more sophisticated unmanned probes;  whereas  the cost gap between manned and unmanned missions remains  huge.  The  practical case   for manned spaceflight gets ever-weaker with each advance in robots and miniaturisation — indeed as a scientist or practical man I see little  purpose in  sending people into space at all.  But as a human being, I’m an enthusiast for manned missions. I hope some people now living will walk on Mars – as an adventure, and as a step towards the stars. They may be Chinese: China has the resources, the dirigiste government, and maybe the willingness to undertake an Apollo-style programme.  And China would need to aim at Mars, not just at the Moon, if it wanted to assert its super-power status by a ‘space spectacular’:  a re-run of what the US achieved 50 years earlier would not proclaim parity.

 

NASA’s manned programme, ever since Apollo, has  been impeded by public and political pressure into being too risk-averse. The Space Shuttle failed  twice in 135 launches.  Astronauts or test pilots would willingly accept this risk level,  but  the Shuttle had, unwisely, been  promoted as a safe vehicle for civilians. So each failure caused a national trauma and was followed by a hiatus while costly efforts were made (with very limited effect) to reduce the risk still further.

 

Unless motivated by pure prestige and bankrolled by superpowers, manned missions beyond the Moon will  need perforce to be cut-price ventures, accepting   high risks – perhaps even ‘one-way tickets’.  These missions will be privately funded; no Western governmental agency would expose civilians to such  hazards. There would, despite the risks, be many volunteers —  driven by the same motives as early explorers, mountaineers, and the like.  Private companies already offer orbital flights.  Maybe within a decade adventurers will be able to sign up for a week-long trip round the far side of the Moon – voyaging further from Earth than anyone has been before (but avoiding the greater challenge of a Moon landing and blast-off). And by mid-century the most intrepid (and wealthy)  will be going further.

 

(The phrase ‘space tourism’ should however be avoided. It lulls people into believing that such ventures are routine and low-risk. And if that’s the perception, the  inevitable  accidents will be as traumatic as those of the Space Shuttle were.  Instead,  these cut-price ventures must be ‘sold’   as dangerous sports,  or intrepid exploration. )

 

But don’t ever expect mass emigration.  Nowhere in our Solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. Space doesn’t offer an escape from Earth’s problems. Nonetheless, a century or two from now, there may be small groups of pioneers living independent from the Earth – on Mars or on asteroids. Whatever ethical constraints we impose here on the ground, we should surely wish these adventurers good luck in genetically modifying their progeny to adapt to alien environments. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species: the beginning of the post-human era. And machines of human intelligence could spread still further. Whether the long-range future lies with organic post-humans or with intelligent machines is a matter for debate. Either way, dramatic  cultural and technological evolution will continue not only here on Earth but far beyond.

 

The most crucial impediment to space flight, even in Earth’s orbit  and  still more for those venturing further, stems from the intrinsic inefficiency of chemical fuel,  and the consequent requirement to carry a weight of fuel far exceeding that of the payload. (It’s interesting to note, incidentally  that this is a generic constrain, based on fundamental chemistry, on any organic intelligence that had evolved on another planet. If a planet’s gravity is strong enough to retain an atmosphere, at a temperature where water doesn’t freeze and metabolic reactions aren’t to slow, the energy required to lift   a  molecule from it will require more than one molecule of chemical fuel.)

 

Launchers will get cheaper when they can be designed to be more fully reusable.  It will then  be feasible to assemble, in orbit,  even larger artifacts than the International Space Station.  But so long as we depend on chemical fuels, interplanetary travel will remain a challenge.  Nuclear power could be transformative. By allowing much higher in-course speeds, it would drastically cut the  transit times to Mars or the asteroids (reducing  not only  astronauts’ boredom, but their exposure to damaging radiation).  And it could transform manned spaceflight from high-precision to an almost unskilled operation. Driving a car would be a difficult enterprise if, as at present for space voyages, one had to program the entire journey beforehand, with minimal opportunities for steering on the way.  If there were an abundance of fuel for mid-course corrections (and to brake and accelerate at will), then  interplanetary navigation would be a doddle — indeed simpler than driving a car or ship, in that the destination is always in clear view.

 

But even with nuclear fuel, the transit time to nearby stars exceeds a human lifetime. Interstellar travel is therefore, in my view,  an enterprise for post-humans, evolved from our species not via natural selection but by design. They could be silicon-based. Or they could be organic creatures who had won the battle with death, or perfected the techniques of hibernation or suspended animation.  Even those of us who don’t buy the idea of a singularity by mid-century would expect sustained, if not enhanced, rate of innovation in biotech, nanotech and in information science.  I think there will be entities  with superhuman intellect within a few centuries. The first voyagers to the stars will not be human, and maybe not even organic. They will be creatures whose life-cycle is matched to the voyage the aeons involved in  traversing the Galaxy are not daunting to immortal beings.

 

 

3000 AND BEYOND

 

By the end of the  third millennium, travel to other stars  could  be technically feasible.  Before setting out from Earth the  voyagers would know  what   to expect at journey’s end. Most importantly of all, they will know whether their destination is lifeless or inhabited, and robotic probes will have sought out already-existing biospheres, or planets that could be terraformed to render them habitable.

 

It could happen, but would there be sufficient motive?  Would even the most intrepid leave the solar system? We can’t predict what inscrutible goals might drive post-humans. But the motive would surely be weaker if it turned out that biospheres were  rare. The European  explorers in earlier centuries who ventured across the Pacific were going into the unknown to a far greater extent than any future explorers would be (and facing more terrifying dangers)  — there were no precursor expeditions to make maps, as there surely would be for space ventures. Future space-farers would always be able to communicate with Earth (albeit with a timelag).  If precursor probes have revealed that there are indeed  wonders to explore, there will be a compelling motive —  just  as Captain Cook was motivated by the biodiversity and  beauty of the Pacific islands. But if there is nothing but sterility  out there, the motive will be simply expansionist — in resources and energy — and that might be better left to robotic fabricators.

 

How bright are the prospects that there is life out there already? There may be simple organisms on Mars, or remnants of creatures that lived early in the planet’s history; and there could be life, too, in the ice-covered oceans of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. But few would bet on it; and certainly nobody  expects a complex biosphere in such locations.  For that, we must look to the distant stars – far beyond the range of any probe we can now construct.

 

In the last twenty years (and especially in the last five) the night sky has become far more interesting, and far more enticing to explorers, than it was to our forbears.    Astronomers have discovered that many stars — perhaps even most  — are orbited by retinues of planets, just as the Sun is.  These planets are  not detected directly. Instead, they reveal their presence by effects on their parent star that can be detected by precise measurements: small  periodic motions in the star induced by an orbiting planet’s gravity, and slight recurrent dimmings  in a star’s brightness when a planet transits in front of it, blocking out a small fraction of its light.

 

Data are accumulating fast, especially from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is monitoring the brightness of 150000 stars with high enough precision to detect transits of planets no bigger than the Earth.  Some stars are known to be orbited by as many as seven planets, and it’s already clear that  planetary systems display a surprising  variety — our own Solar System may be far from typical. In some systems, planets as big as Jupiter are orbiting  so close to their star that their ‘year’ lasts only a few days.  Some  planets are on very eccentric orbits.   One is orbiting a binary star which in turn orbits another binary star:  it would have four ‘suns’ in its sky.  But there is special interest  in  possible ‘twins’ of our Earth — planets the same size as ours, orbiting other Sun-like stars, on orbits with temperatures such that water neither boils nor stays frozen. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has identified  of hundreds of these.

 

 

But we’d really like to see these planets  directly — not just their shadows. And that’s hard. To realise just how hard,  suppose an alien astronomer with a powerful telescope  was viewing the Earth  from (say) 30 light years away — the distance of a nearby star. Our planet  would seem,  in Carl Sagan’s phrase, a ‘pale blue dot’, very close to a star (our Sun) that outshines it by many billions: a firefly next to a searchlight.  But if the aliens could detect the Earth at all, they could learn quite a bit about it. The shade of blue  would be slightly different, depending on whether the Pacific ocean or the  Eurasian land mass was facing them.  They could infer the length of the ‘day’,  the seasons, whether their are oceans, the  gross topography, and the   climate.  By analysing the faint light,  they  could infer that  the Earth had  a biosphere.

 

Within  20 years, the unimaginatively named ELT (‘Extremely Large Telescope’) planned by European astronomers, with a mosaic mirror 39 meters across, will be able to draw such inferences about  planets the same size as our Earth, orbiting other Sun-like stars. (And there are two somewhat smaller US telescopes in gestation too)

 

But do we expect alien  life on these extra-solar planets? We know too little about how life began on Earth to lay confident odds. What triggered the transition from complex molecules to entities that can metabolise and reproduce?  It might have involved a fluke so rare that it happened only once in the entire Galaxy – like shuffling a whole pack of cards into a perfect order. On the other hand, this crucial transition  might have been almost inevitable given the ‘right’ environment.  We just don’t know — nor do we know if the  DNA/RNA chemistry of terrestrial life the only possibility, or just one chemical basis among many options that could be realized elsewhere.  Even if simple life is common, it is of course a separate  question whether it’s likely to evolve into anything we might recognize as intelligent or complex — whether Darwin’s writ runs through the wider cosmos.  Perhaps the cosmos teems with life; on the other hand, our Earth could be unique among the billions of planets that surely exist.

 

And it might be too anthropocentric to limit attention to Earth-like planets.  Science fiction writers have other ideas — balloon-like creatures floating  in the dense atmospheres of Jupiter-like planets,  swarms of intelligent insects, nanoscale robots etc. Perhaps life can flourish even on a planet flung into the frozen darkness of interstellar space, whose main warmth comes from internal radioactivity (the process that heats the Earth’s core).  There could be diffuse living structures,  freely-floating in interstellar clouds; such entities  would live  (and,  if intelligent,  think)  in slow motion, but nonetheless may come into their own in the long-range future.

 

No life will survive around on a planet whose central Sun-like star became a giant and blew off its outer layers.  Such  considerations remind us of the transience of  inhabited worlds (and life’s imperative to escape their bonds eventually). We should also be mindful that seemingly artificial signals could come from super-intelligent (though not necessarily conscious) computers, created by a race of alien beings that had already died out.  Maybe we will one day find ET.  On the other hand,  SETI searches may fail; Earth’s intricate  biosphere may be unique.  But that would not render life  a cosmic sideshow. Evolution is just beginning.     Our Solar System is barely middle aged and if  humans avoid self-destruction, the post-human era beckons.    Life from Earth  could spread through the   entire Galaxy, evolving into a   teeming  complexity  far beyond what we can even conceive. If so, our tiny planet  — this pale blue dot floating in space — could be the most important place in the entire Galaxy. The first interstellar voyagers from Earth would have a mission that would resonate through the entire Galaxy and perhaps beyond.

 

‘FAST-FORWARD’ TO THE END OF TIME

 

In cosmological terms (or indeed in a  Darwinian timeframe) a millennium is but an instant. So let us ‘fast forward’ not for a few centuries, nor even for a few millennia, but  for an ‘astronomical’ timescale millions of times longer than that.  The  ‘ecology’ of stellar births and deaths in our Galaxy will proceed gradually more slowly, until jolted by the ‘environmental shock’ of an impact with Andromeda, maybe four billion years hence.   The debris of our Galaxy, Andromeda and their smaller companions within the local group will thereafter aggregate into one amorphous galaxy. If the cosmic acceleration continues, then, as Freeman Dyson and others have noted, the observable unlverse gets emptier and more lonely. Distant galaxies will not only move further away, but  recede faster and faster until they disappear — rather as objects falling onto a black hole encounter a horizon, beyond which they are lost from view and causal contact.

 

But the remnants of our Local Group could  continue for far longer — time enough, perhaps for Kardashev Type III phenomenon  to emerge as the culmination of the long-term trend for  living systems to gain complexity and ‘negative entropy’. All the atoms that were once in stars and gas could be transformed into   structures as intricate as a living organism or a silicon chip but on a cosmic scale.

 

But even these speculations are in a sense conservative.  I have assumed that the universe itself will expand, at a rate that no future entities have power to alter. And that  everything is in principle understandable as a manifestation of the basic laws governing particles, space and time that have been partly disclosed by 20th century science. Other chapters in this book envisage stellar-scale engineering to create black holes and wormholes — concepts far beyond any technological capability that we can envisage, but not in violation of these basic physical laws.  But are there new ‘laws’  awaiting discovery? And will the present ‘laws’ be immutable, even to a Type III intelligence able to draw on galaxtic-scale resources?

 

We are well aware that our knowledge of space and time is incomplete. Einstein’s relativity and the quantum principle are the two pillars of 20th century physics, but a theory that unifies them is unfinished business for 21st century physicists.  Current ideas suggest that there are mysteries even in what might seem the simplest entity of all — ‘mere’ empty space.  Space may have a rich structure, but  on scales a trillion trillion times smaller than an atom. According to string theory, each ‘point’ in our ordinary space, if viewed with this magnification, would be revealed as a tightly-wound origami in several extra dimensions. Such a theory will perhaps tell us why empty space can exert the  ‘push’ that causes the cosmic expansion to accelerate; and whether that ‘push’ will indeed continue for ever or could be reversed.  It will also allow us to model the very beginning – an epoch where densities are so extreme that quantum fluctuations can shake the entire universe — and learn whether our big bang was the only one.

 

The  same fundamental  laws  apply throughout the entire domain we can survey with our telescopes. Atoms in the most distant observable galaxies seem, from spectral evidence, identical to atoms studied in laboratories on Earth.  But what we’ve traditionally called ‘the universe’  —  the aftermath of ‘our’ big bang — may be just one island, just one patch of space of time,  in a perhaps-infinite archipelago.  There may  have been an infinity of big bangs, not just one.  Each constituent of this ‘multiverse’ cooled down differently, ending up governed by different laws. Just as Earth is a very special planet among zillions  of others, so– on a far grander scale — our big bang was also a very  special one.   In this hugely expanded cosmic perspective, the laws of Einstein and the quantum could be mere parochial  bylaws governing  our cosmic patch.  Space and time may have a structure as intricate  as the fauna of a rich ecosystem, but on a scale far larger than the horizon of our observations.  Our current concept of physical reality  could be as constricted, in relation to the whole, as the perspective of the Earth  available to a planckton  whose ‘universe’ is  a spoonful of water.

 

And that’s not all – there is a final disconcerting twist.

Post-human intelligence (whether in organic form, or in autonomously-evolving artefacts) will develop  hypercomputers with the processing power to  simulate living things — even entire worlds. Perhaps advanced beings could use hypercomputers to   surpass the  best ‘special effects’ in movies or computer games so vastly that they could simulate a universe fully  as complex as  the one we perceive ourselves to be in. Maybe these kinds of super-intelligences already exist elsewhere in the multiverse –  in universes that are older than ours, or better tuned  for the evolution of intelligence. What would these super-intelligences do with their hyper-computers? They  could create virtual universes  vastly outnumbering the ‘real’ ones. So perhaps we are ‘artificial life’ in a virtual universe. This concept opens up the possibility of a new kind of ‘virtual time travel’, because the advanced beings creating the simulation can, in effect, rerun the past. It’s not a time-loop in a traditional sense: it’s a reconstruction of the past, allowing advanced beings to explore their history.

 

 

Possibilities once in the realms of science fiction have shifted into serious scientific debate. From the very first moments of the big bang to the mind-blowing possibilities for alien life, parallel universes and beyond, scientists are led to worlds even weirder than most fiction writers envisage. We have intimations of deeper links between life, consciousness and physical reality. It is remarkable that our brains, which have changed little since our ancestors roamed the African savannah, have allowed us to understand the counterintuitive worlds of the quantum and the cosmos. But there is no reason to think that our comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality. Scientific frontiers are advancing fast, but we may sometime ‘hit the buffers’. Some of these insights may have to await post-human intelligence. There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, that we are not aware of, any more than  a monkey comprehends the nature of stars and galaxies.

 

If our remote descendents reach the stars, they will surely  far surpass us in insight as well as technology.

 

 

 

 


AN INTERVIEW AT MIT

Published by Gregory Benford on May 23rd, 2015
GB at the Verne conference UTOPIALES 2008

http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/science_fiction/

Henry Jenkins Gregory Benford (1941- )


“Science is … like literature, a continuing dialogue among diverse and conflicting voices, no one ever wholly right or wholly wrong, but a steady conversation forever provisional and personal and living.”

— Gregory Benford

 The critic Susan Stone-Blackburn has described Gregory Benford’s Nebula-Award winning novel,Timescape (1980) as “a genuine marriage of science and literature.” On the surface, this claim sounds fatuous. After all, the whole point of science fiction as a genre is to merge science and literature. On the other hand, what Stone-Blackburn means is that Benford’s novel offers a profoundly original way of thinking about the relationship between the two terms.

Hugo Gernsbeck, John Campbell and many of the early promoters of science fiction thought one purpose of the new genre was to popularize scientific fact and scientific theory. They made scientists and inventors into protagonists driven by a quest for knowledge and a desire to uncover the universe’s secrets. However, they rarely explored the cultural realm of science, the working methods of scientists, or the historical conditions which shaped the priorities of scientific research.

One of Benford’s most important contributions has been to expand the way science fiction represents the contexts out of which scientific understanding emerges, the competing priorities and paradigms that govern which secrets are uncovered and what insights are ignored.

Benford, who teaches Plasma Physics and Astrophysics at the University of California-Irvine, knows those contexts intimately. He describes Timescape as a partially autobiographical novel. He and his twin brother appear as minor characters in several scenes, depicted as precocious and vaguely annoying students who are encountered by the novel’s protagonist, Gordon Bernstein, a harried junior faculty member.

Benford’s protagonist does not live in a hermetically sealed world, where he can focus on the problems which carry the book’s plot; he must struggle with senior faculty members who are gunning for his star student during his Ph.D. examinations; he must juggle the demands of teaching and grading papers and meaningless committee work and reviewing graduate applications; he must maneuver through the land-mines of departmental colloquia, jockeying for position and trying not to be blind sided by others who want to make good on their ambitions at his expense. His protagonist is someone who must risk his chances at tenure and promotion in order to explore a intriguing but unorthodox scientific hypothesis. Benford recognizes that scientists spend only a small portion of their lives doing meaningful scientific research (the stuff traditional science fiction is made of) and a lot of their time doing things that pay the bills and keep the grant money flowing.

The novel is autobiographical in another sense as well, drawing on Benford’s experiences as a graduate student at the University of California-San Diego in the 1960s and his experiences as an American on sabbatical at Cambridge University. His novel depicts two different scientific communities which must work together — across time and against the odds — to solve a vexing problem upon which rides, nothing less than, the survival of the planet. (Here, at least, he remains true to the pulp origins of his genre!)

One subplot takes shape in the context of La Jolla, California, in the early 1960s, the peak of the Kennedy era: “It was the continuing heady rush of the Sputnik phenomenon. Gordon was riding that wave himself, and he knew it; these were ripe times for science.”

The other plot shows us Britain in the near future (1998, to be exact), as the planet suffers ecological disasters which may destroy the potential for human life and as funds for scientific research are directed toward immediate utilitarian applications: “This year research was a puppet whose strings led to the World Council itself. The western nations had pooled their research efforts in a gesture towards economy. The World Council was a political animal. To Renfrew it seemed the Council’s policies boiled down to supporting highly visible efforts and little else.”

Benford is fascinated by the differences in how science operates in America and England, in times of plenty and times of scarcity. The two worlds are set equidistance from 1980, the year in which Benford wrote the novel, thus allowing him to look back on the recent history of his discipline and forward to the not so distant future.

As its title suggests, Timescape is a time travel story of sorts — not containing glistening time machines and hairy-chested morlocks, but rather grounded in more or less plausible extrapolations drawn from contemporary theoretical physics. In 1998, a team of scientists specializing in tachyon particles struggle to send a message back in time, warning the past about the causes of their contemporary environmental crisis. Tachyons are faster-than-light particles which therefore defy much of what we think we know about how time operates. In 1962, Gordon Bernstein tries to make sense of irregular patterns of interference that are disrupting his lab experiments, and gradually finds a way to decipher the signals being sent from the future.

Timescape is a novel about scientific problem solving, as both sides must overcome a succession of obstacles blocking their communication. Given our still primitive grasp of tachyons, the channels of communication between past and future are narrow and rudimentary — the simple dots and dashes of Morse code. The problems Benford’s scientists confront — issues of signal and noise, the need for redundancy of expression — are problems that shaped the early history of the telegraph and radio. Ironically, only when the precise, technical language of science gives way in the story to a more broadly human language — when a bureaucrat devises a simple test to see if the messages have gotten through, requesting that a note be left in a bank safe deposit box, or when a tired researcher starts babbling about his desperation and frustration — does real communication across time and space occur.

Benford has no belief in science as a universal language; its terms, concepts, and basic materials shift dramatically in the forty years which separate the two groups of protagonists in his story. The future scientists take for granted things that scientists in the 1960s did not yet know, and so there is confusion and misinterpretation.

For Benford, science is founded in human experience, human knowledge, human perspectives, and human biases. His scientists struggle to focus on technical problems amid complex personal relationships, try to isolate the challenges of the laboratory from the difficulties of the bedroom or from the tensions between mothers and sons, and yet, often, the insights which generate their scientific discoveries come to them from spaces far removed from their experimental apparatus.

As one of the book’s scientists explains, “theories are based on pictures of the world — human pictures.” Benford is interested in the way scientists think — and his characters approach their various tasks with wildly different methods. In one passage, Benford contrasts different approaches to their work of a theoretical and a experimental physicist:

His [John, the experimental scientist] emotions were bottled up in an obsession with machinery and some inner turbulence, almost a defiant anger at the universe for withholding its secrets. Perhaps that was the difference between merely thinking about experiments, as Greg did, and actually having to do them. It must be harder to believe in serene mathematical beauties when you have dirty hands.

In Benford’s fiction, we learn how characters’ minds work by watching how they calculate equations. In doing this, Benford blurs the boundaries between science and literature, making science the vehicle for exploring character. In one of the book’s most moving passages, a scientist works through some highly complex calculations as he sits on a transatlantic flight, searching not only for a technical truth but for a cosmic beauty.

There was more than remorseless crank-turning to be done here. The work had to have the right deft feel, to glide forward on its own momentum. Beyond the logical standards there were aesthetic questions…. There was no choice between beauty and truth, really. You had to wind up with both. In art, elegance was a whore of a word, bent a different way by each generation of critics. In physics, though, there was some fragile lesson to be learned from past millennia.

Benford can trace the processing of the individual human mind across page after page, circling through the complexities of theoretical physics and spreading outward to touch other parts of his characters’ lives.

At the same time, he recognizes that scientific research is at heart collaborative, building upon what has come before, drawing insights through uneasy and unstable alliances, making headway as much through the help of critics as allies, and making intuitive links that cut across fields of specialization. Benford implicitly rejects the cornerstone cliche of science fiction — the autonomous scholar whose knowledge is unlimited and genius unbounded.

Instead, his protagonists are all dependent upon others in their work group, yet each in his own way is brilliant, each makes a vital contribution to solving problems. Science remains heroic in Benford’s novel, all the more so, because no individual can find all the answers independently.

Timescape is also preoccupied with the ways in which the media reports scientific discoveries, examining how all levels of media, from Junior Scholastic to Life, from the network news to tabloid scandal sheets, represent and misrepresent scientific discoveries, sometimes damaging reputations, but sometimes helping to insure that resources are properly directed towards urgent problems. Benford’s protagonists must make their cases in venues other than scientific journals, must meet standards of proof and credibility far removed from the nuances of scientific method. In a throw-away passage early in the novel, Benford recounts a BBC debate between a rational U.S. ambassador and a passionate Argentinean:

The triviality of this point [the U.S. Ambassador’ argument] in the face of an avalanche of psychic energy from the Argentinean had put the ambassador far down in total points by the time the viewers phoned in their opinions of the discussion. Why, the ambassador fellow had scarcely smiled or mugged at the camera or smacked a fist on the table before him. How could he expect to have any media impact whatever?

The rational discourse of science fares no better than politics in this realm of media controversy.

Among the book’s more intriguing secondary characters is a media-savvy astronomer, clearly modeled loosely on Carl Sagan, who opportunistically exploits Bernstein’s research to help make the case for life on other planets, a much more attractive subject for the media to cover than our protagonist’s nuclear resonance experiments. Benford notes at one point, “It was odd how celebrity invaded science these days so that appearing on the Johnny Carson Show was more effective with the NSF than publishing a brilliant series of papers in Physical Review.”

Benford questions the values of such a culture, recognizing that some of the core questions physics must confront defy common-sensical understandings of the universe. He discusses, for example, how the theory of tachyons seems to defy our grasp of temporal relations: “Human language did not fit the physics. There was no tense of the verb to be that reflected the looping sense of time. No way to turn the language on the pivot of physics, to apply a torque that would make the paradoxes dissolve into an ordered circle, endlessly turning.”

To find answers, his protagonists must move beyond ideas easily grasped within their culture, even beyond the constraints of their era’s dominant scientific paradigms, and this ground-breaking makes it difficult to translate pure research into a language that wins grants and secures bureaucratic support.

Yet, Benford is also critical of the ways in which the language of science has shut out the general public and has encouraged its resignation and indifference: “For decades now the picture of the world painted by the scientists had become strange, distant, unbelievable. Far easier, then, to ignore it than to try to understand it. Things were too complicated. Why bother? Turn on the telly, Luv. Right.”

Science fiction is, after all, a genre committed to popularizing science, making its insights and conclusions accessible to a broader public. More people will understand time paradoxes and tachyons by reading his Benford’s novel than by reading his reports on “Coherent Radiation from Energetic Electron Streams via Collisionless Bremmstrahlung in Electrical Plasma Turbulence” in Astrophysics Journal. Yet, Benford is also aware that science fiction appeals to a narrow, self-selecting community interested in exploring a literature of ideas: “Science fiction can and does teach people things because after all, it is an elite literature and talks about arcane things sometimes. It’s programming is to blow your mind, occasionally, to open your horizons, to tell you things you didn’t know.”

Benford writes what is known as “hard science fiction” — which is to say, his novels are grounded in physic and astronomy, rather than in the social sciences. The trio of Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin, known as the “killer B’s”, helped to revitalize “hard science fiction” as a subgenre in the 1980s. When I speak with MIT students and faculty who are enthusiasts of “hard science fiction,” they are quick to note that Benford really knows his science. Benford consults for NASA, was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society, and writes broadly about scientific questions for both Reason and Fantasy and Science Fiction (“A Scientist’s Notebook”). He has gained recognition as a practicing full-time physicist and as a widely published and prolific science fiction writer, best known for his Galactic Center Saga. Benford respects the earlier traditions of the genre, having collaborated on projects which extend the work of Arthur C. Clarke (Beyond the Fall of Night) and Isaac Asimov (Foundation’s Fear) as well as collaborating with Poul Anderson (Murasaki). He has edited many significant anthologies, often in collaboration with Martin Greenberg, centering on issues of alternative history, including Hitler Victorious and the What Might Have Been series.

In the end, however, Benford’s contributions to the genre aren’t the scientific facts and theories he teaches his readers, but his ability to open the culture of science to of those of us who don’t know a Bunsen burner from a test tube. Benford opens the poetry of higher mathematics to readers who struggled through Algebra II. To do that, he has had to fuse science and literature in a way few have done before.

Selected Works
The Galactic Center Saga:
1977 In the Ocean of the Night
1984 Across the Sea of Suns
1989 Tides of Light
1994 Furious Gulf
1995 Sailing Bright Eternity
Other Works:
1974 Threads of Time
1979 The Stars in Shroud
1980 Timescape
1983 Artifact
1984 Jupiter Project
1985 Deeper Than Darkness
1987 In the Ocean of Night
1987 Under the Wheel
1987 Hitler Victorious (ed. with Martin Greenberg)
1987 Great Sky River
1987 Heart of the Comet (with David Brin)
1988 In Alien Flesh (short stories)
1988 Nuclear War (ed. With Greenberg)
1989 Alternative Heroes (ed. with Greenberg)
1989 Alternative Empires (ed. with Greenberg)
1991 Beyond the Fall of Night (with Arthur C. Clarke)
1992 Alternative Americas (ed. with Greenberg)
1992 Murasaki (with Poul Anderson)
1995 Far Futures (ed.)
1995 Matter’s End
1996 A Darker Geometry (with Mark O. Martin)
1996 Shiva Descending (with William Rotsler)
1997 Foundation’s Fear
1998 Cosm
1998 If Stars Are Gods

–H.J.

 


MY ‘BEST OF’

Published by Gregory Benford on May 17th, 2015

9781596066861

OUT IN JULY…. I took a long look at my stories, and David Hartwell made his masterly editorial judgments, so here they are, out of 215 stories so far.

http://subterraneanpress.com/store/product_detail/the_best_of_gregory_benford