Noah’s Ark Eggs and Viviparous Plants FREEMAN DYSON

Published by Gregory Benford on December 8th, 2014


In his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation”, published in the journal Science, Freeman Dyson famously argued that the long term evolution of technological alien societies might lead to capturing the bulk of all their star’s emissions, forming what came to be called by others Dyson Spheres. Dyson once said, “Science is my territory, but science fiction is the landscape of my dreams.” Though he has never written science fiction, his scientific imagination has inspired a great deal of it. Here he looks again at the very long term, but this time for life far from stars. Still, his focus is their energy needs.

Noah’s Ark Eggs and Viviparous Plants

Freeman Dyson

Science-fiction stories about starships usually depict the universe as a collection of stars and planetary systems separated by vast stretches of empty space. The space between stars is imagined to be filled with dilute interstellar gas and nothing else. The real universe is much more interesting. The real universe contains a multitude of objects of various sizes, giving interstellar travelers places to stop and visit friends and collect fresh supplies between the stars. We know almost nothing about these objects except for the fact that they exist. We know that in the space around our own planetary system there are two populations of comets, known as the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud.

The Kuiper Belt is the source of short-period comets, and the Oort Cloud is the source of long-period comets. We know that they exist because the comets which we see coming close to the sun are visibly disintegrating and cannot survive for a long time. The tail which makes a comet beautiful is proof of its mortality. Meteor showers are the debris marking the graves of dying comets. To keep new comets appearing at the observed rate, the source populations must be large, of the order of billions of comets of each kind. A few of the biggest and closest objects in the Kuiper Belt population can be directly observed, orbiting the sun with orbits concentrated around the plane of the planets. The brightest and most famous of these objects is Pluto. The Oort Cloud is invisible from the earth. It is a spherical population of objects at much greater distances from the sun, loosely attached to the sun by weak gravitational forces.

There is no reason to believe that the space between the Oort Cloud and the nearest stars is empty. We know that a large fraction of all stars are born with planetary systems. It is also likely that large numbers of planets are born unattached to stars. Furthermore, we know that the normal processes of formation and evolution of planetary systems result in ejection of planets and comets from the systems. As a result of these processes, the universe probably contains more unattached planets than stars, and billions of times more unattached comets. The space between our solar system and the nearest stars is probably infested with unattached planets and far more numerous unattached comets. In addition, there may be other objects of intermediate kinds which we have not yet observed, from snow-balls to black-dwarf stars. It is conceivable that some of the intermediate objects might be alive, a population of mythological monsters making their home in space.

The existence of abundant way-stations between the stars is likely to have a decisive influence on the development of starships. We shall not jump in one huge step from planetary to interstellar voyages. We shall be exploring one group of objects after another, first the Kuiper Belt, then the Oort Cloud, then a string of further-out oases in the desert of space, before we finally come to Proxima Centauri. In the history of mankind on this planet, there were two very different kinds of explorers who learned to navigate the oceans. There were the European navigators who sailed from fixed bases in Europe to destinations in America and Asia and came home to Europe with loot from their trade and conquest. Columbus was typical of these explorers, making three voyages back and forth across the Atlantic. But before the Europeans, there were Polynesian navigators who built canoes to sail long distances on the Pacific and populated the Pacific islands from Asia to Hawaii and New Zealand. The Polynesians did not have home bases in Asia and America, and they were not interested in sailing all the way across the ocean. They made their voyages from island to island, stopping to make a new home when they found a new island suitable for raising their crops and pigs and children.

The Polynesians were navigating the Pacific for a thousand years before the Europeans crossed the Atlantic. Island-hopping came first, intercontinental voyages later. It is likely that the future of our traveling beyond the Solar System will follow the same pattern. The evolution of starships, like the evolution of Polynesian canoes and European galleons, will proceed by a process of trial and error. Unattached comets and planets will be like the islands in the Pacific Ocean. We will begin like the Polynesian navigators, modestly. Developing starships one step at a time, we can learn by trial and error how to do the job right. Perhaps, after a thousand years, we will be ready to build grand super-highways conveying traffic along non-stop routes from star to star.

Two things are needed to make starships fly, a place to go and a way to get there. The first problem is mainly a problem of biology, the second a problem of engineering. Let us look at biology first. To have a place to go, we must learn how to grow complete eco-systems at remote places in the universe. It is not enough to have hotels for humans. We must establish permanent ecological communities including microbes and plants and animals, all adapted to survive in the local environment. The populations of the various species must be balanced so as to take care of each others’ needs as well as ours. Permanent human settlement away from the earth only makes sense if it is part of a bigger enterprise, the permanent expansion of life as a whole. The best way to build human habitats is to prepare the ground by building robust local ecologies. After life has established itself with grass and trees, herbivores and carnivores, bacteria and viruses, humans can arrive and build homes in a friendly environment. There is no future for humans tramping around in clumsy space-suits on lifeless landscapes of dust and ice.

The recent revolution in molecular biology has given us new tools for seeding the universe with life. We have learned to read and write the language of the genome, to sequence the DNA that tells a microscopic egg how to grow into a chicken or a human, to synthesize the DNA that tells a bacterium how to stay alive. We have sequenced the genomes of several thousand species. The speed of sequencing and of synthesis of genomes is increasing rapidly, and the costs are decreasing equally rapidly. If the increase in speed and the decrease in costs continue, it will take only about twenty years for us to sequence genomes of all the species that exist on our planet. The genetic information describing the entire biosphere of the planet will be available for our use. The total quantity of this information is remarkably small. Measured in the units that are customary in computer engineering, the information content of the biosphere genome amounts to about one petabyte, or ten to the power sixteen bits. This is a far smaller amount of information than the data-bases used by enterprises such as Google. The biosphere genome could be embodied in about a microgram of DNA, or in a small room full of computer memory-disks.

Looking ahead fifty or a hundred years, we shall be learning how to use genetic information creatively. We shall then be in a position to design biosphere populations adapted to survive and prosper in various environments on various planets, satellites, asteroids and comets. For each location we could design a biosphere genome, and for each biosphere genome we could design an egg out of which an entire biosphere could grow. The egg might weigh a few kilograms and look from the outside like an ostrich egg. It would be a miniature Noah’s ark, containing thousands or millions of microscopic eggs programmed to grow into the various species of a biosphere. It would also contain nutrients and life-support to enable the growth of the biosphere to get started. The first species to emerge from a Noah’s ark egg would be warm-blooded plants designed to collect energy from sunlight and keep themselves warm in a cold environment. Warm-blooded plants would then provide warmth and shelter for other creatures to enjoy. In this way, life could be seeded in great abundance and variety in all kinds of places, traveling on small space-craft carrying payloads of a few kilograms. Since life is inherently an unpredictable phenomenon, many of the biospheres would fail and die. Those that survived would evolve in unpredictable ways. Their evolution would continue for ever, with or without human intervention. We would be the midwives, bringing life to birth all over the universe, as far as our Noah’s ark eggs could travel.

The second problem, the problem of engineering, is to build machines that can take us from here to there. To have space travel over long distances at reasonable prices, we must build a public highway system so that the costs of the initial investment can be shared by a multitude of users. A public highway system in space will require terminals using sunlight or starlight to generate high-energy beams along which space-craft can fly. The beams may be laser-beams or microwave-beams or pellet streams. The massive energy-generating machinery at the terminals remains fixed. The space-craft are small and light, and pick up energy from the beams as they fly along. Unlike chemical or nuclear rockets, they do not carry their own fuel. For the system to operate efficiently, the volume of traffic must be big enough to use up the energy of the beams. Space-craft must be flying along the beams almost all the time. As with all public highway systems, the system can only grow as fast as the volume of traffic. The cost of travel will be high at the beginning and will become low when every terminal is crowded with passengers waiting for a launch.

In every public transport system, things work better if we build separate vehicles for passengers and freight. On the roads, cars for passengers and trucks for freight. On the railroads, fast short trains for passengers and slow long trains for freight. The Space Shuttle was a system designed to put passengers and freight on the same vehicle, and that was one of the reasons why it failed. It was supposed to be cheap and safe and reliable, with frequent flights and a high volume of traffic, and it turned out to be expensive and unsafe and unreliable. The public highways of the future will be like roads and railroads and not like the Shuttle. But the relation between passengers and freight in the future will be the opposite of what it was in the past. In the past, humans were small and light, freight was big and heavy. Cars were small and agile, trucks were big and clumsy. In space today, this relation between human passengers and freight is already inverted. Because of the miniaturation of instruments and communication systems, unmanned spacecraft have become smaller and lighter than manned spacecraft. Payloads of unmanned missions have remained roughly constant while their performance and capability have improved by leaps and bounds. Payloads of manned missions have remained larger while politicians fail to decide what they are supposed to do.

In the future, when missions go beyond the solar system, the difference between passengers and freight will become greater. Freight will no longer be bulk materials such as fuel and water. Freight will be information, embodied in ultralight computer memory or in DNA. Freight will be several orders of magnitude lighter than human passengers. Payloads of unmanned missions may be measured in grams, while payloads of manned missions will always be measured in tons. As a result, the public highway system will consist of two parts, a heavy-duty system transporting human passengers between a small number of metropolitan human habitats, and a light-freight system transporting packages of information along a wider network of routes to more distant destinations. A typical light-freight mission might be like the Starwisp proposed by Bob Forward. The Starwisp is an ultralight sail made of fine wire mesh, driven through space by a high-power beam of microwaves. The wire mesh is not only the vehicle but also the payload, carrying sensors to explore the environment and transmitters to send information collected by the sensors to humans far away. Starwisp could also be a vehicle for carrying Noah’s ark eggs to bring life to remote places. It is likely that the travel-times of voyages will become longer than a human life-time. After life has spread that far, it will no longer make sense for humans to travel with it. Instead of imprisoning human travelers for a lifetime in a space-craft, it would make more sense to load the space-craft with a few human eggs, which could grow into humans at the destination. In the end, we would populate the galaxy by broadcasting the information required for growing humans, rather than by carrying deep-frozen human bodies for thousands of years.

When we are thinking about the spread of life into the universe, the most important fact to remember is that almost all the real-estate in the universe is on small objects. Real-estate means surface area. The universe contains objects of all sizes. Most of the mass and volume belong to big objects such as stars and planets. Most of the area belongs to small objects such as asteroids and comets. Most of the life will have to find its home on small objects. The majority of small objects have three qualities which make them unfriendly to life. They are far from the sun or other stars, they have no atmosphere, and they are cold. In spite of those disadvantages, they can be seeded with life. They can support biospheres as diverse and as beautiful as ours.

The key technology for bringing life to small cold objects in space is the cultivation of warm-blooded plants. Warm-blooded plants are more essential to the ecology of cold places than warm-blooded animals are to the ecology of our warm planet. Life on earth might have evolved happily without birds and mammals, but life in a cold place could never get started without warm-blooded plants. Two external structures make warm-blooded plants possible, a greenhouse and a mirror. The greenhouse is an insulating shell protecting the warm interior from the cold outside, with a semi-transparent window allowing sunlight or starlight to come in but preventing heat radiation from going out. The mirror is an optical reflector or system of reflectors in the cold region outside the greenhouse, concentrating sunlight or starlight from a wide area onto the window. Inside the greenhouse are the normal structures of a terrestrial plant, leaves using the energy of incoming light for photosynthesis, and roots reaching down into the icy ground to find nutrient minerals. Since there is no atmosphere to supply the plant with carbon dioxide, the roots must find mineral sources of carbon and oxygen to stay alive. We see in the light emitted from comets, as they come close to the sun, that these icy objects contain plenty of carbon and oxygen as well as nitrogen and other elements essential to life.

The embryonic warm-blooded plant must grow the greenhouse and the mirror around itself while still protected within the greenhouse of its parent. The seeds must develop into viable plants before they are dispersed into the cold environment. These plants must be viviparous as well as warm-blooded. It seems to be only an accident of evolution on our own planet that animals learned to be viviparous and warm-blooded while plants did not.

The optical concentration that the mirror must provide will depend on the distance of the plant from the sun or star providing the energy. Roughly speaking, the optical concentration must increase with the square of the distance from the source. For example, if the plant is on the surface of Enceladus, a satellite of Saturn at ten times the Earth’s distance from the sun, the intensity of sunlight is one hundredth of the intensity on Earth, and the optical concentration must be by a factor of a hundred. If the plant is in the Kuiper Belt at a hundred times the Earth’s distance, sunlight is reduced by a factor of ten thousand and the mirror must concentrate by a factor of ten thousand. Existing biological structures can do much better than that. The human eye is not an extreme example of optical precision, but it can concentrate incoming light onto a spot on the retina by a factor larger than a million. That is why staring at the sun is bad for the health of the eye. A mirror as precise as a human eye would be good enough to keep a plant warm at a distance ten times further from the Sun than the Kuiper Belt. Eagles and hawks have better eyes than we do, and a simple amateur telescope costing less than a hundred dollars is better still. There is no law of physics that would prevent a warm-blooded plant from growing a mirror to concentrate enough starlight to survive anywhere in our galaxy. The main difficulty in achieving a high concentration of starlight is that the mirror must track the source accurately as the object carrying the plant rotates. The plant must be like a sun-flower, tracking the sun as it moves across the sky. If high accuracy is needed, the plant must grow an eye to see where it is pointing.

These speculations about viviparous plants and Noah’s ark eggs and life spreading through the galaxy are my personal fantasies. They are only one possible way for the future to go. The real future is unpredictable. It will be rich in surprises that we have not imagined. All that we can say with some confidence is that biotechnology will dominate the future. The awesome power of nature, to evolve unlimited diversity of ways of living, will be in our hands. It is for us to choose how to use this power, for good or for evil.

Last Things: Cold Comfort in the Far Future

Published by Gregory Benford on September 24th, 2014

Illustrated by Andrew Probert
. . . the use, however haltingly, of our imaginations upon the possibilities of the future is a valuable spiritual exercise.
—J. B. S. Haldane, 1923

How did it all begin?
This is a very old obsession. Less often fretted over is the symmetric question: How will it all end?
Robert Frost’s famous imagery—fire or ice, take your pick—pretty much sums it up. But lately, largely unnoticed, a revolution has unwound in the thinking about such matters, in the hands of that most rarefied of tribes, the theoretical physicists. Maybe, just maybe, ice isn’t going to be the whole story.
Of course, linking the human prospect to cosmology itself is not at all new. The endings of stories are important, because we believe that how things turn out implies what they ultimately mean. This comes from being pointed toward the future, as any ambitious species must be.
There are three forms of chimpanzees: the common chimp, the bonobo, and us. We are the only chimp who got out of Africa. That experience reflects and probably laid down the deep human urge—indeed, our signature: the urge to restlessly move on, explore, exploit. Natural selection gives us a gut imperative that plays out physically and culturally, in pursuit of our goal: the expansion of human horizons.
On Earth, horizons worked for many millennia. But that time is over, the skies beckon—and it is natural to think in terms of our horizons in time. We have cosmology to aid us now, unlike people only a century ago. Most of us believe that physics can tell us more about our prospects than religion. Still, we do think long, and often with theological implications. The far future matters for very basic reasons.
Our yearning for connection explains many cultures’ ancestor worship: we enter into a sense of progression, expecting to be included eventually in the company. Deep within us lies a need for continuity of the human enterprise, perhaps to offset our own mortality. Deep time in its panoramas, both past and future, redeems this lack of meaning, rendering the human prospect again large and portentous.
We gain stature alongside such enormities. But this flattering perspective sets an ultimate question: will a time come when humanity itself will not be remembered, our works lost and gone for nothing?
Of course, sf has always looked long, from Wells’ dying crab on a red beach, and onward. Freeman Dyson suggested that spheres around stars could be technology’s distant goal, and inspired many sf novels—but such ideas only worked as long as stars burned, which means about 100 billion years. One could look longer, and some did. In this spirit I edited Far Futures in 1995, looking at the long view. Two of the five novella authors therein have died—Poul Anderson and Charles Sheffield; alas, mortality vs. the abyss. There are myriad other literary examples of writers and scientists confronting a truly ultimate question—of Last Things.
* * *
A major change in our ideas of cosmology occurred only ten years ago, with the discovery that the expansion of our universe is accelerating. To reach such an astonishing conclusion demanded new measurements of supernova brightness in far-away galaxies, meanwhile eliminating many possible sources of error, combined with precise calibrations of their distances. Together, these showed that the further away, the faster others were fleeing from us, and us from them, as we share a quickening expansion.
This acceleration overthrows half a century of conventional wisdom. For eighty years, ever since Einstein began modern cosmology, we thought that deceleration held sway. Gravitation would slow the swelling that began with the Big Bang. Around 1950 it even seemed that the universe might cease expanding and implode into a final crunch, and that perhaps this had happened before.
This finding, that space-time is opening ever-faster, relies upon a fairly tricky measurements. It is not easy to study whether the momentary luminosities of supernovas, in very distant galaxies, fit a pattern. It remains to be extensively checked, but for the moment suppose we take it as given.

Ancient Ideas

Acceleration implies an ever-bigger cosmos. Some feel repulsed by the entire notion. Cyclic universes have great appeal, as every public lecturer on cosmology knows from the audience questions. Evolution may have geared us to expect cycles; the seasons deeply embedded this in our ancestors. The ancient Hindu system embraces it especially, holding that we are already uncountably far into the oscillations, and the universe is unknowably old.
Love of cyclic universes may come from a deep unease with linear time, one that predates our modern ideas. At least the periodic supplies some rhythm, a pattern, rolling hills rather than just a flat plain stretching to infinity.
This feeling finds an echo in other common audience questions. Doesn’t all this have a purpose, an end? Does the drama go on forever, really?
But then, genuinely endless repetition also seems to revolt most of the cyclic devotees—they still want to avoid the abyss of infinite time. The Hindu time scale is immeasurably long but not infinite.
Aristotle was an exception. He thought there had been an infinite number of generations, since there had been no beginning. He believed that despite some ups and downs, by and large things stayed on average the same, throughout all time. There were no changes of natural kinds of species or or in nature’s overall arrangement, or of the basic options in life. So even though the universe is eternal, it stays familiar. Aristotle felt that this made studying nature have a point. Nature provides regularities and we can know them, so science is at least possible.
Aristotle was a man of the West. Not all faiths worry about time. Confucian and Taoist beliefs do not comment or care about how the universe began or will end. Chinese thought does spend a lot of energy on history and on the memory of the great ages in the past. There is much concern with social beginnings and endings, golden ages and collapses. But even very long stories have a beginning and end.
For these faiths there is no far-off divine comeuppance, “to which the whole Creation moves,” as Tennyson put it. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “There never was a time when I was not… there will never be a time when I will cease to be.” Since time and space together began creation (as both Saint Augustine and the Big Bang attest) the Bhagavad Gita has a point. The chicken and the egg arrived at the same time.
The Abrahamic faiths “of the book”—Jews, Christians and Islamites alike—envision linear, not cyclic time. This reflects a big conceptual shift from the unchanging atmosphere of the far ancient world, when little changed. Indeed, modern science needs the possibility of change, because Newtonian forces do not have to return everything to the status quo.
Christian scripture says that this is a suffering world, addicted to attachment, to be ultimately transcended. The far future then lies beyond that goal. God’s agenda is then rigorous—creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, final judgment, then the ultimate fate, Last Things. But how far can this sequence go? Forever?
Newton founded his mechanics on the linear flow of time, inventing his “theory of fluxions” (differential calculus). But his cosmology is static, eternal, shadowed by the ever-threatening catastrophe of gravitational collapse. Given enough time, this fate would come through stars colliding and coalescing. This fate prefigures the black hole disaster, when mass colludes to escape our space-time entirely by collapsing to a singular point.
This, Newton thought, could be avoided by occasional divine intervention, as needed—a fixup universe.
As for the beginning, Christian theists seem most comfortable with the Big Bang, since it says Creation is a fact. Saint Augustine’s doctrine that God made both space and time ex nihilo was never supposed to carry great weight as the crucial moment in all time; it was just a beginning, not the whole point of the matter.
When Aristotelian science became widely known, the medievals thought of that first moment as the establishment of the Aristotelian average sameness, as far as nature was concerned. There might be a social linear narrative, but no natural one.
Aristotle does have an argument that time cannot have a beginning or an end. Changes happen for Aristotle when the appropriate items are in the right situation—the pot on the fire, the seed in the ground, and so on. If a purported first change happens, suddenly, in a universe that was previously unchanging, then there had to have been a still earlier change that brought the items for the supposed first change together. Otherwise it would already have happened. But that new first change is subject to the same argument, so there cannot be a true first change. An analogous argument shows that any supposed last change must be followed by a further change, that then disposes things so that they won’t be in a position to change further. But that change needs a later shoring up, etc.
It’s a good argument. But Aquinas then claimed that it doesn’t consider creation, which is not strictly speaking a change, just a beginning, a coming into being of the whole. This allows for a Creation finite in time.
But little rigor got invested in the eventual fate of our universe. That became the domain of modern science. Many are horrified by a universe that lasts only a finite time, ending in cold or heat. Even placing the event in the very far future, long after our personal deaths, carries the heavy freight of making what we do now meaningless, because it does not last. Recall the scene in Annie Hall when young Woody Allen refuses to do his homework because the universe is going to end anyway.
Will Shakespeare endure literally forever? As Bertrand Russell put it in Why I am Not a Christian,
All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast heat death of the solar system, and… the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.
So Russell doesn’t believe in God because nothing lasts. At first this seems an odd argument, but it goes to our deep questions. If nothing lasts, what is our purpose?
Some fervent believers attack the second law of thermodynamics (the heat death) for exactly this reason. Ironically, these Christians join company with atheist Friedrich Engels, who disliked entropy because it would destroy historical progress in the long run.
Suppose we could create a heaven on Earth, or at least somewhere. Permanent, unchanging paradise seems boring to many, at least if it means mere joyful indolence. Is perpetual novelty even possible, though? Can we think an infinite variety of thoughts?
Christian theology solved this dilemma by putting God outside time, so that holy eternity was not infinite duration but rather not time at all. This belief is long-standing, but it need not stay in fashion forever. Faiths may arise which long for the heat death, or embrace the (apparently not coming) big crunch—cosmological cheerleaders for cleansing ends.
Theology has responded to cosmology, but the pace of discussion is now quickening so much that the connections between the two need fresh thought. Luckily, this is now coming mostly from the cosmologists themselves.
* * *.
In 1979 the celebrated Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson brought this entire issue to center stage for physicists and astronomers. He already had his prejudices: he wouldn’t countenance the Big Crunch option because it gave him “a feeling of claustrophobia.” Still, must all our revelries end? Science, he thought, might be able to settle whether a Last Day is ever going to arrive.
He knew of the threads in theological thinking. When I discussed these matters with him in the 1970s, he knew that theology faced a paradox. We seem to harbor twin desires—purpose and novelty, progress and eternity alike.
When physicists ask questions, they do a calculation to clarify matters. He discussed the prognosis for intelligent life. Even after stars have died, he asked, can life survive forever without intellectual burn-out?
Energy reserves will be finite, and at first sight this might seem to be a basic restriction. But he showed that this constraint was actually not fatal. He looked beyond times when any stars would have tunnelled into black holes, which would then evaporate in a time that will be, in comparison, almost instantaneous. As J.D. Bernal foresaw in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1929):
…consciousness itself may end… becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately resolving itself entirely into light… these beings… each utilizing the bare minimum of energy… spreading themselves over immense areas and periods of time… the scene of life would be… the cold emptiness of space.
Dyson’s answer was positive. He thought that by hibernating, life could endure eternally. But in the decades since Dyson’s article appeared, our perspective has changed in two ways, and both make the outlook more dismal.
First, most physicists now strongly suspect that atoms don’t live forever. The basic building block, the proton, will decay into lesser particles. White dwarfs and neutron stars will erode away in about 1036 years, sputtering into wan energies and small sprays of electrons and positrons. The heat generated by particle decay will make each star glow, but only as dimly as a domestic heater—no real help against the pervasive cold.
Dyson originally assumed matter would last for eternity. Though the proton lifetime remains unmeasured, current particle theory predicts protons should decay in about 1034 years.
Our universe is about 15 billion years old, or a little over 1010 years. In principle, everybody agrees that despite the steady cooling, order could persist even up to 1034 years. Here we speak of unimaginably long times—except that science fiction writers, and now physicists, have imagined them, guided by the gliding calculus of theoretical physics. But writing down numbers is a dry way of gaining what we really mean by imagining, i.e., having a gut feeling. Still, calculation is all we have to go on.
After protons fade away, say 1034 years, our Local Group of galaxies will be just a swarm of dark matter, electrons and positrons. Thoughts and memories could survive beyond the first 1036 years, if downloaded into complicated circuits and magnetic fields in clouds of electrons and positrons—maybe something that would resemble the threatening alien intelligence in The Black Cloud, the first and most imaginative of astronomer Fred Hoyle’s novels, written in the 1950s.
“An austere mode of existence,” Dyson felt. And with classic understatement, “…even if this assumption is wrong, it is certainly good for the next 1034 years, long enough for life to study the situation carefully.”
The second bit of bad news is that the accelerating expansion means the universe cools even faster. There is less time to avert the cold, and less room, too.
Why less? Characteristically, Dyson was optimistic about the potentiality of an expanding universe because there seemed to be no limit to the scale of artifacts that could eventually be built. He envisioned the observable universe getting ever vaster. Many galaxies, whose light hasn’t yet had time to reach us, would eventually come into view, and therefore within range of possible communication and “networking.” Interactions will matter. We could gain knowledge from distant bretheren, for use against the encroaching night.
But an accelerating expansion yields a more constricted long-term future. Galaxies will fade from view ever faster as they get more and more red-shifted—their clocks, as viewed by us, will seem to run slower and slower. Then they will seem to freeze at a definite instant, so that even though they never finally disappear we would see only a finite stretch of their future.
This is analogous to what happens if a cosmologist falls into a black hole: from a vantage point safely outside the hole, we would see our infalling colleague freeze at a particular time. We’ll have only a last snapshot, even though they experience, beyond the horizon, a future that is unobservable to us.
Well before 1034 years, our own Galaxy, its identical twin neighbor Andromeda, and the few dozen small satellite galaxies that are in the gravitational grip of one or other of them, will merge together into a single amorphous system of ageing stars and dark matter. Then the universe will look ever more like an “island system” (the kind of universe originally proposed by Laplace). In an accelerating universe, everything else disappears beyond our horizon. If the acceleration is fixed, this horizon never gets much further away than it is today.
So there’s a firm limit—though of course a colossally large one—to how large any network or artifact can ever become. This translates into a definite limit on how complex anything can get.
Still worse, one important recent development has been to quantify this limit. Space and time cannot be infinitely divided.
The inherent quantum “graininess” of space sets a limit to the intricacy that can be woven into a universe of fixed size. Life has to work within boundaries.
Even if the problem of limited energy reserves could be surmounted—a big order in itself, and the main issue Dyson addressed—there would be a limit to variety and complexity. The best hope of staving off boredom in such a universe would be to construct a time machine and, subjectively at least, exhaust all potentialities by repeatedly traversing a closed time-loop. This appears to be possible, within general relativity, but Dyson and others found it also claustrophobic.
There is other theoretical hope, too. It is a bit abstract, though. Kurt Godel’s famous theorem showed that mathematics contains inexhaustible novelty, i.e., true theorems that can’t be proved with what has come before. Only by expanding the conceptual system can they be shown to be true, in a larger view.
Most people would not turn to mathematics for a message of spiritual hope, but there it is.
* * *
As this darkened universe expands and cools, lower-energy quanta (or, equivalently, radiation at longer and longer wavelengths) can store or transmit information. Just as an infinite series can have a finite sum (for instance, 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + …….. = 2), there is perhaps, in principle, no limit to the amount of information processing that could be achieved with a finite expenditure of energy. Any conceivable form of life would have to keep ever-cooler, think slowly, and hibernate for ever-longer periods.
But there would be time to think every thought, Dyson believed, even in the face of the heat death. As Woody Allen once said, “Eternity is very long, especially toward the end.”
Life that keeps its temperature fixed will not make it, though. It will eventually exhaust its energy store. The secret of survival will be to cool down as the universe cools. Being frugal means you could dole out in ever-smaller amounts the energy necessary to live and think.
Silicon or even dust could form the physical basis of such enduring life, at least until the protons decay. After that, there is no fundamental reason that information cannot be lodged in electron-positron plasmas, or even atoms made from them. “Positronium” is an “atom” of a positron, an anti-electron, orbiting with an electron, much like a hydrogen atom. In September, 2002, a European group succeeded in producing tens of thousands of them in a magnetic bottle, so they could conceivably be used to build solid structures of a wholly new sort.
No matter what the basis of life is, the crucial distinction for far-future thinkers is their method of storing information. In our computer-saturated world, using information defines life—active flow, not mere passive storage.
Life tends to be defined in terms of the reigning paradigm of the time, so in our computer age we make a crucial distinction. There are two choices: analog or digital.
Old fashioned LPs are analog; CDs are digital. Cosmologist Fred Hoyle’s ominous Black Cloud, imagined in a novel in the 1950s, was analog, storing its memories in magnetic fields and dust particles. A human mind uploaded into a computer would be digital life.
Are our brains analog or digital? We do not know, as yet. But this point became the battleground between Dyson and a bevy of physicists, including Larry Krauss of Case Western University. In The Physics of Star Trek Krauss tried to make sense of the mangled science in Trek. Many of his colleagues suspected his motives were less that of informing the masses than making money, and his challenge to Dyson had the quality of a young buck butting heads with an aging bull. The debate got rarefied right away, including lengthy calculations on the thermodynamics of ultracold, with quantum mechanics for dessert.
Our genetic information carried in DNA is clearly digital, coded in a four-letter alphabet. But the active information in our brains remains mysterious. Memories live in the strengths of synaptic connections between billions of neurons, but we do not fathom how these strengths are laid down or varied. Perhaps memory is partly digital and partly analog; there is no reason the methods cannot blend.
If we are partly analog, then perhaps the hope of the brain-downloading method will be only partly fulfilled, and some of our more fine-grade thoughts and feelings will not make it into a digital representation.
Actually, the analog/digital divide may not be the whole story. Some theorists think the brain may be a quantum computer, keeping information in quantized states of atoms. But since we know little about quantum computers beyond their mere possibility, the argument over in-principle methods has fastened upon analog vs. digital.
Interestingly, the long-term prospects of digital intelligences are not the same as analog forms. Krauss leaned heavily on a digital determinism, which shaded quickly into pessimism. Dyson stood his analog ground.
That there is any contest at all may surprise some, since we are so used to analog tools like slide rules giving way to digital ones like hand calculators. The essential difference is that analog methods deal with continuous variables while digital ones use discrete counting.
Surprisingly, analog wins, digital loses. It turns out that the laws of physics allow a thrifty, energy-hoarding information machine (life) to persist, but not a digital one.
The reasons are fairly arcane, involving the quantum theory of information storage. Still, one can think of a digital system as having rachets that, once kicked forward, cannot go back. As the universe cools, you eventually can’t kick the rachet far enough forward. But a smooth system can inch up as much as you like, storing memories in smaller and smaller increments of energy.
Life can use hibernation to extend its analog form indefinitely. Like bears, it can adapt to falling temperatures by sleeping for progressively longer cosmic naps. Awake, it spends its energy reserves at unsustainable levels. Asleep, it accumulates.
It turns out further that such life can communicate with other minds over the great distances between galaxies, too. Energy reserves can dwindle, but so does the noise background in the universe, as expansion cools the night sky.
Communication depends not on signal strength (energy) but on the ratio of signal to noise. A cold, expanding universe is friendly to the growth of intergalactic networks. Life will have ample time to wait for an answer from, say, the Andromeda galaxy, without worrying about being able to hear the reply.
But not all is well for analog life if the universe continues to accelerate forever. At some distance, the repulsive force that causes this acceleration must win out over gravity’s attraction. So galaxies further away than this critical distance will accelerate beyond view, setting the limit on the size of structures that life can build. This ultimately dooms it.
So to persist forever, life needs to be analog and the universe must not be accelerating forever. The first is an engineering requirement, and presumably savvy life forms will heed it. The second we can do nothing about, unless somehow life can alter the very cosmological nature of our universe—surely a tall order.
We do not yet know (and may not for quite a while) whether the acceleration will slow, because we do not know its cause. This is the biggest riddle in cosmology, and many are pursuing it. The Dyson-Krauss dispute rages still in the hallowed pages of Physical Review. Dyson’s own vaguely optimistic theology clashes with Krauss’s apparent atheism. They are reprising an ancient difference in tastes over the deepest issue: is there any discernible purpose to the universe? And does human action mean anything on this vast stage?
* * *
These long-range projections over zillions of years involve fascinating physics, most of which is quite well understood… but not all of it.
First, we can’t be absolutely sure that the regions beyond our present horizon are like the parts of the universe we see. Just as on the ocean, there could be something amazing just over the horizon.
Physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler have pointed out that a new source of energy—so-called “shear-energy”—would become available if the universe expanded at different rates in different directions. This shearing of space-time itself could power the diaphanous electron-positron plasmas forever, if the imbalance in directions persists. To harness it, life (whatever its form) would have to build “engines” that worked on the expansion of the universe itself.
Such ideas imply huge structures the size of galaxies, yet thin and able to stretch, as the space-time they are immersed in swells faster along one axis than another. This motor would work like a set of elastic bands that stretch and release, as the universal expansion proceeds. Only very ambitious life that has mastered immense scales could thrive. They would seem like Gods to us.
As well, our universe could eventually be crushed by denser material not yet in view. Or the smoothing out of mass on large scales may not continue indefinitely. There could be a new range of structures, on scales far larger than the part of the universe that we have so far seen.
Physics can tell us nothing of these, as yet. These ideas will probably loom larger as we learn more about the destiny of all visible Creation.
Or… Even more fundamentally, maybe time itself is a hominid illusion, not fundamental at all. It might rather be an emergent property of some deeper structure to be revealed. Our human temporal anxiety would then be a passing fashion, not a feature of the universal destiny. This idea may be more sobering than even the cold comfort awaiting us “way up ahead.”
Finally, what can one infer from physics about theology?
It is tempting to suppose that a God who made such a universe might, as narrative-addicted humans do, think that the end of a story tells its meaning. If all order is to be leached away by eternal cold, what did the building of such structure by intelligence amount to? Put differently, what is the meaning of human action?
Perhaps nothing, if the fate of all order is mere ruin. If it is not, and Dyson proves right, we might turn to another Dyson idea: that the universe has been designed to be the most interesting possible. This means that variations arise and abound, then evolve and finally aspire to greater heights.
So in the end our choice of endings implies a choice of the Designer behind it all.
One wonders if, once the theoretical physics is settled, the outcome will provoke fresh theological thinking. If intelligence can persist forever in principle, will this result be used in a new form of the Argument from Design?
Conversely, if life cannot survive, will atheists make this into an argument for no God, or for a God with a perverse (to us) purpose?
Either way, the debate will be made more interesting by the injection of a new set of physical facts. Science fiction’s role is to explore the human implications. Hot topics like the possibility of other dimensions in which different universes dwell (“branes” for membranes; not a great scientific shorthand) will be experimentally checkable within perhaps five to ten years.
Such exotic notions will provoke much fiction—already has, in my Beyond Infinity. The accelerating expansion might itself accelerate, leading to the “big rip” which shreds atoms, erasing all information—truly a horrifying prospect, if you think Shakespeare’s works should live forever. Surely this is a grand, Wagnerian struggle worthy of life in the far future.
So I end by quoting James Gunn: “Fiction, I think, is humanity’s way of seeking justice in an uncaring universe.”
* * *

Big Universe

An Interview with: Professor George Slusser – by Cristian Tamas

Published by Gregory Benford on August 9th, 2014

SLUSSER PICIf The Stars Are Gods by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund

George Slusser is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California in Riverside (UCR, CA, U.S.A.), Ph.D., Comparative Literature (Harvard University), the first Curator (Emeritus) of the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction &Fantasy Utopian and Horror Literature (UCR, CA, U.S.A. –  the world’s biggest SF collection),   Harvard Traveling Fellow,  Fulbright Lecturer, Coordinator of twenty three Eaton SF Conferences, Author of numerous books, studies and articles in the science fiction studies domain.

Dear Prof. George Slusser,  thank you for accepting this interview! Kindly tell us about the circumstances of the SF collection’s curator position offered to you at the University of California in Riverside in 1979?

In the 1960s, UC Riverside library acquired a collection of science fiction and fantasy materials. It was purchased from J. Lloyd Eaton, a San Francisco physician and fan, and contained some 4,000 hardback books, from 1900 to 1950. There were a number of rare books in this collection, and it offered a solid base for a future SF collection. The collection was buried in the library basement for 12 years, gathering dust. I was alerted as to its existence by several people, notably Mike Burgess, future editor of Borgo Press. We had a visionary librarian at the time, Eleanor Montague, who accepted to fund a conference on SF in 1979; if it was successful, she would consider bringing the collection out of obscurity and building it. I had a superb team–Gregory Benford, Eric Rabkin, Mark Rose–and the First Eaton Conference was a huge success, the essays published in an academic press, and the tradition underway that was to last 25 years. Eleanor decided to build the collection. I signed on as curator. It was a second job, and at first there was no pay. But over 25 years I managed to grow the collection from 4000 to some 135,000 hard and paperback books, in some 24 languages. It was the library and not my academic colleagues who supported this collection. In fact, many academics were actively hostile to it. But soon it, like today’s banks, was “too big to fail,” and UCR had to accept it.

Were you a science fiction fan ? Has science fiction any literary relevance?

I was not a fan in the formal sense (conventions, fanzines, etc). I was however, as teen ager, an avid reader of SF. I chose to study English Literature at UC Berkeley, and Comparative Literature at Harvard. This was in the 1960s and 1970s, and science fiction did not exist within those hallowed halls.

This leads to the second half of your question. If you mean by “literature” high realism, then SF is seen as trash. In late 18th century England, critic Samuel Johnson rejected all forms of “fantasy” (including the budding literature of moon travel and future times and places) as unworthy of consideration. Thus began the “great tradition,” the realistic novel as “novel proper.” SF has never recovered from this stigma. In the US, the literary situation was different. Nineteenth century romanticism produced frontier adventures, and Whitman’s call for a “passage to more than India.” The archetypal American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a “boys book.” It is easy to see SF carrying this grand tradition into the 20th century. Science fiction in the US is not only relevant, but highly significant, perhaps the reason why it is now, at the beginning of the 21st century, a dominant cultural form. This is becoming a world-wide phenomenon, resisted only by those who feel it violates their sacred cultural canons. And, by anybody’s standard, SF has produced some very fine narrative works.

Why should a scholar be interested by science fiction? Isn’t it the “realm of ephemeral literature” or “a very minor literary world”?

Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of stories and novels, written in many languages and national cultures, is not something “ephemeral.” What we identify as science fiction today has been developing over centuries in Western culture, and today flourishes as the literary form that (re: Asimov’s famous definition) recounts the impact of scientific and technological advancement on human beings. This is a major literary world. For the defenders of the canon, it remains the proverbial 400-pound gorilla in the room.

Why did you accept a position that could have had jeopardized your career?

I rapidly realized that what I was trained to do was not very interesting. I wrote a dissertation on the artist in Diderot, Balzac and Hoffmann, but at the time could not see where this kind of work was leading. To make matters worse, American academia was invaded by French theoreticians, which opened the door to “le derridisme a l’americaine,” a lot of neo-scholasticism and amateur politics. I wanted to get my hands on something concrete, a large body of texts and a vast cultural vision. When science fiction came along, I jumped on it. I have absolutely no regrets, it has been a lot of fun. After all, how many scholars have the opportunity to create a huge research repository, to help put an entire genre on the map.

What had been the science fiction status within the american academic world in the ‘60s? What had been the science fiction status at the american general societal level? And today?

It didn’t exist for the American academic in the 1960s. In many ways, it still doesn’t. A recent edition (2005) of the Heath Anthology of American Literature contains every conceivable form of literature–slave narratives, bird songs, rap lyrics. But NOT A SINGLE WORK OF SCIENCE FICTION. For these folks, it’s bug eyed aliens and “sci-fi.” Yet science fiction icons and themes dominate American written and visual culture today. Somebody’s out of step with reality.

Did you start your curator’s activity with a strategy or you just adapt to the existing situation?

I had a strategy in mind. And I did have allies in the library, who found funds to buy books, even when academics sought to block purchases. Librarians love books, and SF had a lot of them, with interesting covers and formats. In a sense SF publishing contains the entire history of the book in the 20th century, and I recreated this history on the shelves of Eaton. What I did is called “collection development,” and Eaton became a prime example of this. Of course, I had to adapt to personnel changes, unenlightened head librarians and such. But this is par for the course for any bootstraps operation within an established bureaucracy. Sometimes it felt we were running an underground operation. But I won a couple of large grants that allowed us to catalog huge amounts of material, and we were on our way.

How did you succeed to transform the Eaton SF Collection in the world’s biggest?

By silence, exile and cunning. We gradually acquired several massive collections from private parties–an example is the Douglas Menville collection of SF paperbacks, some 30,000 books in mint condition, which the collector had to sell because the foundations of his house were sinking under the weight of the books. Other collections were outright gifts. We are lucky to be located in the greater Los Angeles area, where collectors abound. Our collections of pulp magazines (nearly complete and in mint condition) was a gift. Gradually, through the conference, I made contacts with collectors and writers. This way I was able to target choice materials–an example is the Terry Carr fanzine collection, a veritable roadmap to the fanzine jungle (there are hundreds of thousands of these publications, how to know which ones are significant? Terry Carr’s collection let us set parameters. I was not trained as a librarian, but certainly learned to be one.

And the concept of the SF research center just popped up?

It didn’t pop up. It was the fruit of 25 years of Eaton conferences. Nor is it functional today in a way which I find effective. I have been pushing for years for a multi-linguistic approach to SF, and feel this aspect has been abandoned for an anglophone approach. It was through graduate students from different countries (comparative literature students) that I did some of my best collecting. I had students in the Soviet Union, Israel, East Germany and other unlikely places in the 1980s buying books for me (we would give them several hundred dollars and they would buy on the black market, or find book dealers, etc). Eaton is unique for its “foreign” language holdings. Any center should have been built around this vision. Nul n’est prophete dans son pays.


Is any difference between Fantastika (la litterature du fantastique) and Fantasy?

This is a big question. The French fantastique is presented by Tzvetan Todorov as a precisely defined literary form, that developed in the 19th century, whose distinguishing feature is “hesitation” between two possible interpretations of the phenomenon at hand–the étrange (rational science explains the phenomenon) and the merveilleux (the phenomenon belongs to a different order of reality, outside the laws of known science). Fantasy (from phantasein–to figure in the mind) is a more general category. Wordsworth distinguished “imagination” from “fancy.” These terms have much the same relation one to the other as SF and fantasy today: the former reaching outside the mind to new visions, the latter arranging and rearranging the “furniture” of the mind within that mind. At its best, fantasy exchanges worlds for our own; at its worst it cultivates escapism.


When and how did you have the idea to organize the yearly Eaton SF conferences?

As I said above, it was the way to launch the collection, and to bring together scholars, writers, scientists, people from all around the country (and ultimately world) to discuss a new form of literature. In a sense, these conferences, all tightly focused on central themes and forms of the genre) allow us to build–organically–a poetics of science fiction, and to create an academic discipline where none existed before.

What had been the feedback at UCR management level and at the general american academic level concerning the Eaton SF conference’s launching?

Except for the librarians, and for a few enlightened academic colleagues, notably the great comparatist Jean-Pierre Barricelli, UCR “management” generally ignored its existence. Because we networked, the conference needed little money to run. We remained “invisible” to UCR administration people until very recently. The new head of Special Collections, Melissa Conway, had a lot to do with influencing opinions at the level of deans and chancellors. But that has occurred only very recently. On the national and international level, recognition gradually snowballed. In the 1980s and 1990s we were doing joint Eaton Conferences with the Sorbonne, the University of Neuchatel, University of Leeds,  Imperial College in London. UCR remained generally indifferent.

What about the results of the Eaton conferences?

As stated above, we produced a solid body of academic material, and in a sense laid the groundwork of “science fiction studies.” Also, because we nurtured graduate students and young scholars, we gave people the opportunity to publish, thus to achieve recognition and, in a number of cases, get teaching jobs.

Science Fiction : writing, publishing, study, and research. One critic said that even without anymore SF writing, the mechanism will continue to produce research, what is your opinion ? Are science fiction studies necessary?

This critic is probably correct, the academic machine grinds on, even when there is no longer grist for the mill. Many SF writers in fact have felt from the start that “science fiction studies” are not necessary. For example, the scholarly review Science-Fiction Studies, because it began with a certain idea of what science fiction should be, focused attention of a few choice writers (usually writers like Ursula Le Guin who essentially wrote for academics, or a writer like Philip K. Dick, certainly talented but perhaps marginal to the genre). From this, a sort of canon grew, which excluded other talented writers. Today academic journals are doing the same thing, often on blatently political grounds. Writers like David Brin, Gregory Benford, Robert A. Heinlein are rejected on “politically correct” grounds. The whole mechanism seems to turn on empty, emphasizing a divide between writers who must sell to make a living, and ivory tower intellectuals who look down from olympian heights on anything “commercial.” We tried to be more catholic in our Eaton approach to criticism. We had writers and articulate people from other fields than academic (science, medicine) writing criticism. It was a “big tent.”

You are a Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature. Who had studied under your coordination?

I have had lots of people work with me at the PhD level. Because of Eaton, these were mostly from other institutions. I have often been asked by other universities to serve on PhD committees for SF students. I directed theses in Comp Lit on other topics than science fiction. Among people who have become stars in the SF field, I worked with Howard Hendrix and Gary Westfahl

You had teached and wrote and you’re continuing to write. What are you’re main areas of interests?

Science and literature, and the international origins of science fiction as a genre. I have completed this year two book manuscripts: one titled Science Fiction: The Origins and Fortunes of a World Literature; the other titled The Left  Hand of Reason: The Science Fiction of Continental Rationalism. The second deals primarily with that “other science fiction,” the French tradition. France and French rationalism contributed so many things to the origin of science fiction, yet remain virtually unknown to anglophone readers (and to the French as well). It remains an “occluded genre.”

What are your main published works?

I’ve published some 33 books (written and/or edited)  and well over 100 substantial articles. Most recently I’ve collaborated with my partner Daniele Chatelain on two translation/critical editions forWesleyan University Press. One brings to light, through translation and over 100 pages of essays and notes, Balzac’s early work The Centenarian (1822, four years after Frankenstein). If science is the criterion, this is the first SF novel. The other is a translation of three works by J.H.Rosny, whom we argue is the creator of “hard” or scientific SF. These have gotten a lot of attention in the critical press. It was said that, through the lens of science and science fiction, we renewed Balzac studies. Also, my book Gregory Benford: The Scientist as Writer is appearing this winter with U Illinois Press. I also have forthcoming, with Slavic scholar Gary Kern, a book on the science fiction of the Strugatsky brothers, Stalkers of the Infinite, e-book and paperback, with Xenos Press. I’ve got several other projects on science and literature underway.

Is science fiction an american invention?

As I said, SF is the product a number of cultures as they react in specific ways to the paradigm shifts brought about by the development of science. There is the Cartesian paradigm, the Evolutionary Paradigm, and in American SF the Emersonian Paradigm. It seems to me that science fiction flourished in America because this Emersonian vision is both dynamic and open-ended, thus better able to negotiate scientific discoveries that impact the so-called “human condition.” Emerson’s vision of center-circumference and power and form, a dynamic focused on the individual monad, seems marvelously adaptable to the advent of visual and electronic media, which is the principal venue of SF today. It’s not an American “invention,” but as Emerson says, we have built a better mousetrap.

The intellectual life must be brought down to the lowest common denominator, the consumers?

American culture has always flourished, and created art, in the matrix of consumerism. The great jazz of the 1950s moved silently among jazz clubs during the dull Eisenhower 1950s. The same is true for Hollywood cinema. The great directors became greater because they had to struggle against studio bosses. The artistic phoenix springs from consumerist soil. Science fiction is no exception. It moved in its own circles, where writers in order to live have to sell books. Editors and publishing houses are an integral part of the creative picture. where creative editors like Terry Carr and David Hartwell moved the genre in significant directions. European intellectuals tend to think of artistic creation from the top down, and often see theory preceding practice. You create “schools” of literature, or cultural tzars orient and subsidize writer’s guilds. In the past, American culture has grown very nicely from the  soil of consumerism. Whether this is still the case is doubtful, given the insipid nature of commerialized music and literature today.

Is the american science fiction the world’s best or it has the best marketing strategy relying on global popular culture consumerism?

I don’t know about the “world’s best.” But it is possibly the most dynamic and capable of transformation. I have a great appreciation for the American SF of the Golden Age. During the 1940s and 1950s, when writers like Heinlein and Bradbury were producing masterpieces of literature, there was no marketing machine for SF. Nor was its audience “consumerist” in any way. Granted we know how to market culture. But the result is increasingly disastrous. Bad special effects movies. Rap music, insipid pop singers, a stream of garbage. But in what is for me the great “classic” period of SF, it was a literary movement like any other. It had its own serious (sercon) critics in semi-pro and professional magazines. It had discriminating readers, from varied walks of life.

In your opinion what are the world’s best science fiction writers and why?

I was surprised, when I read some of your other interviews with American SF scholars, that when asked what SF writers they liked or thought best, they named Borges, Calvino and other writers I would not categorize as SF writers, nor hold up as paradigms for the genre. For yes, there is a science fiction genre, with identifiable parameters, themes, forms, modes of operation. For whatever reason (academic “respectability”, political correctness) the writers of the American Golden Age are rarely mentioned. Nor even are Verne and Wells. Nor Stapledon and Rosny. This is not an American hegemony by any means. I would put all of the above on my list. But I would also put Heinlein, Asimov, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Blish, Silverberg, Bear, Brin, Benford–the classic American writers and their “progeny.” Science fiction is all about science, and the way scientific concepts of the world interact with conventional belief systems. All the writers mentioned above, and innumerable others, have this “scientific focus” in diverse ways. They are not playing mind-games with the universe, but are, as Benford says, “playing with the net up.” So when we say “best” writers, I use as criterion, rather than literary “excellence,” adherence to the forms and conventions of the genre.

What about the rest of the world’s science fiction, what deserves to be read, what’s your opinion?

All of it. Here, in the US, the focus (academics and fans alike) in on English language writings. This is perhaps understandable for a culture that feels everybody else should speak English, and makes little effort to learn other languages. I am fascinated by other national forms of SF, and how other cultures react to scientific “advancement.” French-language SF for instance is a genuinely alternate tradition, but is known here only to a handful of readers. Marginalized by its own culture, it has few adherents in France itself, though the way it operates is central to the Cartesian vision that shapes it. I have had the same experience with Russian SF and the Strugatskys. I wish I could read Chinese, as my graduate students tell me SF is flourishing there. There ultimately will be no way to understand how SF has evolved without putting together its world profile.

Do you know something about an “exotic considered issue”, for example the romanian science fiction?

I’m not sure what “exotic issue” means. In the final chapter of my book on SF as World Literature, however, I deal at such length with Romanian SF. I do not read Romanian, but do know French, Spanish, Italian, and can draw on Latin (dacia felix). So I have a sense of the language. I was fascinated with the tenacity and wide-ranging knowledge of SF of Romanian critics, many of whom, like Hobana and Cornel Robu, were active under Ceauscescu. I obtained a copy of Bogdan Aldea’s Worlds in the Making, a superb analysis of SF, from a background not just of American and UK SF, but French SF and theories of SF as well. I had copies of the Nemira volumes from the mid 1990s, with their Romanian-English translations back to back Ace Double style–a remarkable attempt to breach the language barrier and make new generation (post 1960) Romanian SF available to the English language reader. I discovered writers like Sebastian Corn and Iulia Anania. I had a sense of a mix (is this the “exotic issue”?) of modern science and deep and violent cosmic myths that remained alive as a sort of alternate “science.” Strange phenomena like Vlad Dracula live on in the future worlds of Romanian SF. My knowledge is superficial, but I see clearly a vibrant tradition that needs to be known.

Do you know Paul Kincaid’s concepts of SF’s exhaustion and decline related to the general western decline? If yes, is such a thing as the gradual US decline as world’s superpower?

Ah yes, the Untergang des Abendlandes. I hardly think we’re there quite yet, and will work quite hard to make sure it doesn’t happen. True, SF has changed a lot in the new millenium. Not all changes do I like (for instance the repeated attacks on Western science by people who have mightily benefited from it). But I don’t see “exhaustion” by any means. There are excellent new writers like Ted Chiang, Charles Stross, Neil Stephenson, Howard Hendrix. Fine novels like Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Paolo Baciagalupi’s The Windup Girl, strong work by Greg Bear and Greg Benford in the classic hard SF vein. There is also an “anglophone” current, typified by Amitav Gosch’s The Calcutta Chromosome. Much of this is a “rewriting” of Western scientific history, and its “undercurrent” of oppression of “unscientific” cultures. It is flying under the banner of SF, and that is fine. One can understand that there are “many sciences” at work today.

In any event, I see vibrant things happening in “SF,” even though the generic label is stretched thin. As for the decline of America’s superpower “status,” I don’t see this in the immediate future. Read Gregory Benford’s and Michael Rose’s blog. All I hope is that the power is used wisely.

In the next decades?


In your opinion has the human species a chance to survive all the next challenges (overpopulation, the resources’ exhaustion, the planet’s climate change, etc.)?

Just as SF is not a literature of prediction, nor can I predict. It is certain however that, if as many claim science and technology has provided the means for creating this mess, only science and technology can offer ways to remedy it. Again, Benford and Rose offer some fascinating solutions.

Do you consider that the western type of intellectual and academic humanist will continue to exist in the future ? What about the future  role of the financiers and hard sciences specialists?

The “financiers” need to be muzzled, and we need new economic models that operate on a world-wide basis. Right now we pit system against system. The French blame plant closings on greedy capitalist bosses. What they don’t realize that these “bosses” are the American retiree. The UC Retirement Fund invests in businesses that pay good dividends. The retiree does not realize that when the fund “divests” holdings in a failing factory or business, thousands of people lose their jobs. But again, in the global marketplace, can governments afford to nationalize and sustain with taxpayer money “rust-belt” industries?

The “hard science” people continue to invent and discover. For many of them however, these “makers” find the so-called “humanist academics” increasingly irrelevant, an obsolete luxury that, in times of tight budgets, can be eliminated. One must say, however, that the humanists, at least in American universities, have in large part nurtured this perception. English departments don’t teach classic English-language writers. As in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, special interest groups and politically correct censors reject work after work because they “offend” someone. Soon there are no courses on Shakespeare, but many seminars on theoretical issues such as “women’s studies.” This plays right into the hands of the technocrats looking for an excuse to get rid of things that don’t prepare students for the “workaday world.” The whole idea of a broad humanist education goes out the window. Because of such excesses, I think some budget cutting is a good thing. If we are vigilant, possibly the marketplace will bring some balance into a system wildly out of order.

What is the relevance of science fiction for the human species?

Science fiction, in its classic form, is the philosophical forum for the age of modern science. I’ve learned a lot about the “human species” from reading it.

Is any difference between Fantastika (la litterature du fantastique) and Fantasy?

This is a big question. The French fantastique is presented by Tzvetan Todorov as a precisely defined literary form, that developed in the 19th century, whose distinguishing feature is “hesitation” between two possible interpretations of the phenomenon at hand–the étrange (rational science explains the phenomenon) and the merveilleux (the phenomenon belongs to a different order of reality, outside the laws of known science). Fantasy (from phantasein–to figure in the mind) is a more general category. Wordsworth distinguished “imagination” from “fancy.” These terms have much the same relation one to the other as SF and fantasy today: the former reaching outside the mind to new visions, the latter arranging and rearranging the “furniture” of the mind within that mind. At its best, fantasy exchanges worlds for our own; at its worst it cultivates escapism.

Why do you think Fantasy had succeeded to arrive at approximately 75 – 80% of the world’s publishing imaginary domain and SF had diminished to only 20 – 25%?

This is regrettably true. Of course there are different kinds of fantasy. SF coexisted quite nicely with “space opera,” a sub-genre whose American lineage runs from Edgar Rice Burroughs to “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series (an epic future full of scientific theory and gadgetry)  to Greg Benford’s  scientifically sophisticated Great Sky River. There is also heroic or “sword and sorcery” fantasy, medieval settings transposed to distant planets. SF can parody this kind of fantasy (Heinlein’s Glory Road), or use it in situations where future mankind has regressed (Benford’s  Tides of Light). Since the 1980s however the publishing industry has churned out numerous fantasy series–historical fantasy, military fantasy a la L. Ron Hubbard. This stuff ends up in role playing and video games. It has none of the future imagination and philosophical depth of classic SF, yet has become the opiate of our time.

The french SF writer Gérard Klein had recently declared to me via an interview that he is very concerned about the phenomenal rise in sales of the so-called “BitLit” (Bite Literature) featuring vampires, zombies and werewolves, this meaning to him that “the traditional superstitions and the irrational had conquered the young generations’ mind”. The italian writer Alessandro Baricco had called this attitude of splitting between an over-technologized reality and the evasion towards the ancestral irrationality, “neo-barbary” (The Barbarians. An Essay on the mutation / I Barbari, La Repubblica, 2006) . Is something to be concerned of or it’s an exaggeration?

I think this is a good analysis of what is going on today. As society and the workplace become  over-reliant on sophisticated, specialized technology, the escape into violent, barbarian fantasies is increasingly tempting. This is part of a trend that began with Nietzsche and André Gide’s L’Immoraliste, where Western rationalism and “science” is rejected for barbarism, primitive ‘cultures’. But today the “entertainment” industry has magnified this tendency thousandfold. Children play violent videogames all day long, killing straw figures without the least thought. What if the game were real? Orson Scott Card foresaw this possibility in Ender’s Game. Today this translates into mass killings of children in American schools.

Are rationalism and cartesianism related to the advancement of science? Are there any relationships?

Descartes’s “method” and his idea of nature as res extensa, a realm to be examined in terms of quantitative mathematical analysis, are crucial to the development of modern science. But his systematization of human experience as rational mind (a unique human quality) in a mortal body subject to the conditions of a material res extensa provided a scientific model for what Pascal later called the “human condition.” The existence of this “rational soul” has all but been eradicated by modern science. Yet it abides as “Cartesian ghost” today, as something that suggests that “we might matter” in a universe of matter. It offers the possibility, not only that the universe has order, but that by means of reason we can understand that order. Pierre Versins defines SF as the “literature of rational conjecture.” This definition does not fit American SF, centered on the upward striving monad and the “worlds” it not only rationally defines, but physically creates. It does seem to fit the tradition of fiction, and ultimately science fiction, that derives from the quest of Descartes and Pascal to define to role of reason in the physical world, and preserve reason as the determining aspect of human existence.

What about science and fiction? Science fiction without science? Is science dull and boring? Are the tech gadgets fun and cool? Is there any advancement way besides science and technology?

I know my definition of science fiction seems limiting. But in the many attempts –pre Gernsback– to define the genre, science is the common element–Wells’s “scientific romance,” Rosny’s “merveilleux scientifique,” the Russian “science fantasy.” So it seems that any definition of the genre must include science. American academics have succeeded in substituting “SF” for science fiction. It can mean “science fantasy,” “speculative fiction,” ‘subversive fiction,” all sorts of things that take us away from the scientific core. I argue here, and have done so elsewhere at length, that the paradigm shifts brought about by science in terms of human value systems, have allowed its new and ever changing “world view” to impact the matter of fiction. For closed value systems such as Christianity we substitute the open-ended process of science. This allows fiction to become “experimental,” to question and examine the human condition rather that reiterating known patterns.

What you seem to be saying with “cool” technology and boring science is, in terms of fiction, partly true. Dr. Robert L. Forward, a physicist, has said that writing science fiction is simply the working out of a scientific concept. You write the scientific paper, and the fiction is written. But such a case of “science writing the fiction,” makes for bad fiction. The “science” in science fiction must be thoroughly digested, must become part of the landscape and mindscape of a given narrative. A writer like Gregory Benford is master of this kind of “re-visioning” the world in new and startling, but scientifically plausible, manner. Alas, with cyberpunk, the technology overtook the science, we do not even care how computers are conceived and “work,” we simply use them. However, we must remember Asimov’s definition: it’s both scientific AND technological advancement that impact human beings and change their concept of the universe. In 19th century England, it was primarily advances in technology that began to challenge the conventional literary landscape. Science only entered the picture with the advent of evolutionary theory. In this sense Wells’s The Time Machine is the first British “scientific” SF novel.

As to whether there is advancement without science, SF as literature, as fiction, is all about human beings reacting to change (perhaps a better word than “advancement”), and seeking to use science and technology to create a liveable if not always better world. What is at stake here, in the realm of morality as well, is the ability to use change to advance the human condition. As literature, it has utopias as well as dystopias.

Kindly address some words to the european SF fans. Thank you!

I thank you for giving me the opportunity to present my views. I am also very impressed with the high quality of the interview questions. I enjoyed responding to them.

© Cristian Tamaş & George Slusser

„From 1979 to 2004, George Slusser held a joint position as Eaton SF Collection’s curator and professor of comparative literature. During his tenure the collection grew in printed titles and other materials, including the acquisition of the major fanzine collections.

A prolific scholar in the field, Slusser taught the first courses in science fiction studies at UCR and originated the Eaton Conference, which he chaired for more than 20 years. It was Slusser‘s dream for UCR to become a center of science fiction studies, with the collection he helped build as the nucleus. Establishing UCR as a center for science fiction studies is still part of the long-range vision at UCR.”:

„A curator was hired for the collection. The choice was Dr. George Slusser, who held a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard University. Dr. Slusser launched the Eaton Conference in 1979, bringing noted writers and scholars annually to the Riverside campus, and producing more than 20 volumes of conference proceedings.

During George Slusser‘s 25-year curatorship, the Eaton collection grew to more than 100,000 volumes, ranging from the 1517 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia to the most recently published titles in all languages. The collection also includes journals, comic books, and 300,000 fanzines, enriched by donations from collectors Terry Carr, Bruce Pelz, Fred Patten, and Rick Sneary. In recent years, films, videos, DVDs, film scripts, and illustrated narratives have been added, most of which have come as donations. The archival holdings comprise the papers of leading science fiction and fantasy authors, including Richard Adams, Gregory Benford, David Brin, F. M. Busby, Sheila Finch, Michael Cassutt, Robert L. Forward, Anne McCaffery, Lewis Shiner, Colin Wilson, and James White.

From its humble and controversial origins, the Eaton Collection has established itself as the largest publicly accessible collection in its field, visited by students, scholars, filmmakers, and enthusiasts from around the world. Dozens of dissertations, hundreds of monographs, and thousands of scholarly articles have been produced from its holdings. Curator George Slusser, now retired but still active in the collection’s development, is considered the leading scholar in science fiction studies.”:




The Scientist at the Heart of SF

Published by Gregory Benford on June 19th, 2014

Report on an unusual panel at Aussiecon Three, 1999
by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1999 Evelyn C. Leeper

John Foyster, interviewer: A paper discussing Gregory Benford and hard science fiction.

Foyster began by saying that he wanted to do this paper because “most people have forgotten about this; and because our Guest of Honour is one such person.”

He went on to say that Clute and Nicholls’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an entry for “Science Fiction,” but it is only for the magazine of that name. You need to look at “Definitions of SF” or “SF” for real information. There is also no entry for “science” (or for “fiction”). There are entries for “biology” and some other specific fields, but none for “chemistry” or “biochemistry.” (Foyster added parenthetically, “Sorry about that, Ike.” Asimov hated the nickname, but probably would have appreciated the aside.)

There is an entry for “scientist.” Foyster summed it up, and added, “There are a lot of mad scientists in there, but not all are mad or even eccentric.”

Foyster said that Wells’s Cavor is eccentric and obsessive, but that the novel (First Men in the Moon) at least is slightly scientific and focuses on the scientist as scientist, while The War of the Worlds is an adventure novel. “The Time Machine is about how a scientist would behave and only peripherally about time travel.” And the reaction to The Time Machine was extremely supportive, particularly by authors such as Henry James.

Working up to Timescape, Foyster referred to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, where a character sings, “You see, my son, time becomes space.” (He said to see the 1982 film of Parsifal to see this visualized.)

This was all working up to Timescape by noting that “some SF is about scientists and the way they behave and some of it is in adventure settings.” The lumping of these two together is “erroneous and not helpful,” according to Foyster. When science fiction readers identify what they think is the best, they tend to choose the latter, those in the minority about scientists. Examples he gave were Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” and the “Foundation” series, which he said is “the story of Hari Seldon struggling with the problem of history.”

Foyster continued, “One man is largely responsible for distorting the role of scientists in science and SF–Hugo Gernsback.” Gernsback, he said, had the sugar-coated pill theory of science fiction: one could attract young minds to science through science fiction. And this is how he promoted science fiction. Though Gernsback claimed his stories were based on science, the example Foyster read (Chapter 8 from Ralph 124C 41+, “The Menace of the Invisible Cloak”) belied this.

Foyster then went on to say that in the sense that Benford’s Timescape is about time travel, it is in a special way. For one thing, Benford had actually researched time travel through tachyons as part of his work. Also, Timescape is an early novel, and in writing an early novel, “a writer is most likely to think freshly about all those problems that might arise in the writing of the novel.”

Also, Benford included real people, people who changed over time, including three alter egos of himself. The Benford in 1998 is trying to warn the Benford of the 1960s of the coming ecological crisis. (Naturally, in this 1973 novel, the 1960s period is more accurate than the 1998 one.) There is therefore “a close and pressing reason for this scientific endeavor.” He added, “The whole of the book is about scientists trying to do science”: not just trying to learn, but also trying to obtain permission and funding for their activities.

Timescape is a realist novel, Foyster claimed, because we see our world, we see flaws in the characters, and we are surprised by some of their failings. “Benford recognizes the fact that if you are successful in constructing a time machine, so will others be later in your own timeline,” though the 1998 alter ego of him takes longer in the book to come to this realization. (Foyster parenthetically asked why UFO enthusiasts do not think UFOs might be time machines.)

Timescape is considered hard science fiction, Foyster said. In fact, Timescape might be considered real hard science fiction (requiring knowing science, not just reading about it). But Timescape is not science fiction as the term is generally used, according to Foyster; Timescape is category-shattering.

Benford’s “Galactic Center” cycle is not, however. This series is about the “final stages of the evolution of mankind, but it is harder to agree that the theme was successful or the series worthwhile.” It has a man from our time as the central character, but Foyster feels he “is less than satisfactory in this role because there is nothing that ties him to me.” The science is “Van Vogtian and Campbellian.” It has less or no scientific endeavor at all, and reverts to the 1930s Campbellian device of expository lumps. Foyster claimed that this showed the “insidiousness of the Gernsback meme” because we know Benford is “someone we know can write a superb novel.” He gave a sample “expository lump” from the end of Sailing Bright Eternity (and the series) about the thermodynamics of information (which however sounded more Stapledonian to me).

I thought this unusual, not only in that Foyster was criticizing the Guest of Honour, but that he was doing this while the Guest of Honour was sitting right next to him! And in fact, Foyster turned to Benford at this point and asked, “Are you sure this is not recycled from Gernsback?” “No, this is Godspeak,” replied Benford, to which Foyster said, “Many find it difficult to make that distinction.”

Foyster now asked Benford if he would like to respond, and Benford said he would. Benford started by saying that it is certainly true that Timescape was an unusual kind of science fiction novel. But he has written several atypical science fiction novels, and they all have one-word titles: Artifact, Cosm, and the upcoming Eater, as well as Timescape.

He noted that Timescape was never reviewed by the New York Times–a review had been written but had apparently been not been used because it was too favorable. “The conventional literary world does not want to read books about scientists,” he said (though I wonder where Michael Crichton fits into all this). So he decided to write books that might get outside the genre.

Benford said, “SF will be like jazz in that when it’s gone, people will give it more tribute.” The problem with our culture, he added, is that it is getting sliced up and there is very little communication between the parts of it: “Life is big and varied.” And while Henry James liked The Time Machine, he turned against Wells later, and in the literary world, James won.

Regarding the “expository lump,” Benford said that it was the voice of a higher intelligence [i.e., it really was God], and he was trying to demonstrate memes as our only sign of a higher intelligence. This was “having God walk on stage and say, “This is what it’s all been about. Okay, a little clunky, but it worked for Wagner, so …'”

In response to a question about the problem of divisions within the culture, Benford said that the current situation is unfixable, the conventional short story will probably die, except for academic enclaves and the New Yorker, within a couple of decades (surviving well only in the genres, though), and “outlasting the bastards is probably the best strategy.”


Published by Gregory Benford on February 19th, 2014



A talk with Gregory Benford

Interviewer: George Slusser


The following questions are a follow-up on what I see as a long and successful career as an SF writer, exploring certain implications of your work, things left unsaid concerning your ultimate definition of SF and your sense of what SF has become and where it seems to be going. I also what to ask a few questions about SF as a literature of ideas, and what you see as the most appropriate narrative form for developing these ideas. I want to explore your “world view,” how you see yourself, as scientist and writer, in relation to the great rationalist philosophers of science: Descartes and Pascal. Finally, how you see yourself as an SF writer in the future.


  1. Greg, after a lifetime reading SF, I firmly believe it is a genre created by science (the scientific revolution of the 17th century forever changed the paradigms by which we conceive our relation to the material world), therefore is inexorably linked to the advancement of science. The definition I find most satisfying is that of Robert Forward, “science writes the fiction.” You, as a scientist and writer, certainly straddle these terms. Could you tell me, if you adhere to this basic definition, the ways in which you see science “writing” the fiction?


I often begin by imagining how a scientist will confront a new scientific result, discovery, or idea. I then use what I know from long observation to elicit how scientists think, which may be my central theme – even when writing of events distant in time and space, as in the Galactic Center Series. Long ago I realized that I had one great advantage in fiction, since few write about scientists, yet science is the driving force in modern times. Writing sf seemed natural because I knew its genre labyrinths and could serve my apprenticeship within it while I learned. If I had chosen to write conventional fiction I doubt I’d have been accepted; even now, scientists seldom appear in ordinary fiction.

I took Bob Forward’s science “writing” the fiction definition of sf as a short truth, though of course the method has many nuances. I usually start by roughing out a scientific idea, then let my unconscious play with it to see where it leads.

I’ve always wanted to render how scientists think while in their most characteristic mode—facing the unknown, ie, doing research. Vast steps forward, like the invention of quantum mechanics a century ago, show us that physics at least has a unique method. To make truly breakout discoveries, you can use elements that seem far from the old positivist ideas. For example, the aesthetics of equations (Dirac), the building of simple models that capture some of the ideas but miss many (Bohr), gedanken experiments (Einstein), and pure imaginative leaps encased in mathematics (von Neumann, Hawking). The same can be true in other sciences, and depicting how this can happen seemed an exciting way to make sf explore avenues other literary forms don’t even imagine doing.


  1. Let’s turn the question around: can you see, in a work of fiction that adapts and extrapolates from scientific concepts, fiction itself acting to “write” the science? By this I mean the idea Zola first expressed in his “Experimental Novel,” where he saw the writer taking a scientific idea and creating a fictional “experiment” where he tests in a controlled manner what Asimov calls the “impact” of scientific and technological advancement on human beings. Zola saw such a novel having an impact on science in turn, at least in the sense of determining the degree to which we “matter” in terms of the physical universe. Your thoughts?


The sf genre does serve as thought experiments useful in anticipating the accelerations and swerves of our times. (Fantasy seems to come from an earlier way to see the world, through animism.) Gedanken experiments come from physics, after all. The sf that emerged from the scientific/technological culture opening out in the 19th century was a natural, intuitive outgrowth. Novels to be truly novel at all must be experiments.

That said, I think the central deep question sf can address is What meaning does human action have, if any? Existentialists root all meaning in what we decide matters, as though we just made up things to care about — but that seems to me to ignore our biological origins. We’re the only form of chimp that got out of Africa, so rooted deep in us is a desire to expand human horizons. I think that’s a fine, great mission, for through us the universe finally gets to fathom itself. We manifest that well in sf. Such longings to comprehend our world come from natural selection, and so arise from the world itself. Doing this gives us meaning because that’s how evolution shaped us. If this universe is an experiment, we’re the ones pushing it forward, trying to comprehend it. The experiment wants us to understand it.



  1. The next question deals with the possibility of science outpacing fiction. I was just reading Joe Miller’s essay on life on Mars, where he details various scientific possibilities of bacterial life forms that could exist under extreme Martian conditions. What he presents are descriptions of possible life forms that, if they exist, would seem to have no relevance to humans except as pure object of observation and study. You fictionalize this possibility of Martian life in The Martian Race. To do so however, you resort to the time-honored formula for fiction articulated by Gerald Prince: when the cat sits on its mat there is no story; when it sits on the dog’s mat, there is drama, hence story. To tell your story of the Martian biomats and their implications for the big picture of Life in general, you use the vehicle of a Heinlein-style space race, and encompass the moment of scientific discovery in a mystery thriller. This is clearly a fictional necessity. But do you see here a danger of science and fiction going in opposite ways?  Is there the risk of today’s readers finding the scientific description itself more interesting than the story vehicle? To avoid this hiatus, do you have any plans for reviving the Clarke model you used in Against Infinity, where near-future humans struggling with space colonization stumble upon the Aleph, a door into infinity?


Being provisionally true until the next, deeper description comes along, science is intrinsically more interesting that the arts, since it can and must evolve. This is seldom shown in fiction, though it is in sf. People often need a human entry into the sometimes austere lands of science. If readers start going after books on science, all to the good—and surely that’s good for sf, too. Alien life is different, though—its mere existence implies so much. How we react to such knowledge is the core emotional arc.

Against Infinity is my favorite novel because it comes from my own growing up—a coming of age story with Faulknerian overtones that resonate with me, a southerner. It rode on its own melting, as Frost said of his poems. So easy to write!–and I could resolve the emotional issues intuitively, almost without thinking. Science is sometimes like this, a struggle with hard problems and niggling detail that suddenly breaks through to a new understanding. The moment of realizing something true and sometimes even beautiful, being the first to see it, is a deep satisfaction. I often try to convey that in fiction as a way to fathom what drives scientists, and why they think rather differently.

I used there not the frontier metaphors, quite, but those of the wilderness. The frontier looms large in sf as a place to be confronted, pushed against, defeated, expanded. The South was definitely not a frontier. Instead, from early on it was a wilderness already enclosed by the still-expanding nation. As a boy growing up in rural southern Alabama, the South was a great piney reserve holding unfathomed mysteries and a sense of a stretching past. I saw much of twentieth century literature as a conversation between the Southern sense of the wilderness vs. the Nawth’n image of frontier. Such subconscious elements have a deep influence on all the arts, often without our realizing.

In Against Infinity I wrote about humanity recapitulating an old mode: going out from their settlements to hunt the Aleph, a thing out of prehistory, alien and unstoppable and still coming, despite all human efforts to either kill it or understand it — clearly, it didn’t matter which.

They do indeed knock it down some and think it[‘s done. But the Aleph cannot be killed forever. It returns in the last pages of the novel, whose last phrase is “…and he knew he would remember.” That’s what makes it a Southern novel, amid all the high tech trimmings.




  1. Now, the question is: have we reached a point in scientific speculation where the world views implied by scientific theory are essentially “unnarratable”? Narrative describes a Newtonian world, can it present a quantum world? There are attempts to narrate quantum worlds, in works like Greg Egan’s Quarantine. The telling however ultimately relies on conventional literary devices—here a God-plot and a cyberpunk private eye—which contradict the premises of the ‘universe’ being presented. You are on the cutting edge of science. Do you have any new strategies for telling these brave new worlds? Or do you think we have reached the limits of SF here?

Certainly arcane fields like string theory and cosmology are hard to bring down to the human scale. So is mathematics; consider how Borges for example managed to use such concepts in his mannered, petite poems to cool reason.

My strategy often begins with a scientist meeting a problem, following a linear plot structure that opens up at the climax. A recent example story is “Bow Shock,” which I had floating in my imagination for a decade. Another tack is to start in a strange situation and let the reader infer what’s happening. This is risky, because I sometimes use extreme cases—such work is for the hard sf fan, mostly, just as the locked room problems were for mystery fans.

There is nothing especially hard about the quantum world if you see it as a mathematical theory and learn new intuitions from that. It’s the substrate of our gross world of particles and waves. Using that particle-wave duality to describe quantum mechanics is just an analogy we can grasp; the actual quantum world is not remotely like ours, after all. A very stfnal experience, in all. I often sense a thinness in contemporary fiction about the way the world operates, making the conventional world primary when it’s not. That’s just a lazy habit. The universe science reveals to us is comically unrelated to what our primitive senses report, after all.

I feel that science and its Baconian link to technology is the quiet driver of most modern history, and we should realize that if we’re to master our own times. Sf speaks to and for the community behind that powerful driver. Most fiction evades the real power afoot in our times. I don’t dislike conventional literature; I’m merely not a fan of naïveté.

On to the question of anthropocentrism in SF. If science can describe life forms that are chemically different from ours, and places where we are not, is SF capable of crossing the anthropocentric barrier? We understand transcendence but appear unable to describe a transhuman condition. Clarke’s Overmind comes from us but cannot communicate with us. Rosny’s Last Man passes the last particles of carbon life to an iron-based form in its earliest stages of evolution which will assimilate all human accomplishments as culminating species, but as nothing more than a chemical reaction. These SF works are rare in their candor. And SF is the point literature in addressing this question. But if it has great difficulty with the N=1 question, can it deal with the transhuman question at all? Do you have any fictional ideas for negotiating Bernal’s “dimorphic split”?


I draw a parallel to quantum mechanics. Led by aesthetics, early TwenCen physicists groped their way to an understanding of the quantum world that no one could have fashioned without the guide of science’s great dance—the waltz between theory and constraining experiment. That’s how we may reach larger perspectives in fiction—trying in fiction to convey perceptions at the limits of our comprehension. Try out new ideas, see what it’s like to walk around inside them.

That’s why the last decade I’ve worked on geoengineering our planet to deal with the coming climate chaos. In its largest sense, geoengineering is not just an attempt to cool the planet’s atmosphere or to make our agitated climate better for us. We’re trying to extend the lifespan of the Holocene, our current geologic epoch (which began about 12,000 years ago)—so that humans and other creatures might last longer and better. That’s how we grow as a species—facing the implications of our own deeds, learning to finally become stewards of the Earth, as Genesis commanded us to.

Of course, some scientists call the current period since about 1800 the Anthropocene—the era of global, human-induced changes to the atmosphere and biosphere. If that’s the case, then geoengineering is the ironic pursuit of vast technological means to return us to the Holocene. It’s a form of technological nostalgia, too.

Sf thinks about such grand scales–humanity as a species, not just a bunch of interest groups, cultures, faiths. Surely this is a grander prospect than class, race, sex and death as riddles for the thinking animal. In a century or two technology will have had more to say on these issues than our literature. Further, any writer’s opinion on what everyone thinks are the big issues of our time is inevitably coarser than the texture of the writer’s conjuring up of life as it comes at him or her. Writers often say more than they mean, thank God. To me, imagining the alien is “Effing the Ineffible,” to quote the title of an Eaton paper I gave. You always fall short, but notable successes like Lem’s Solaris, which also has deft satire of science at its core (a whole chapter of reading in the library!), show that it can be done.



4.      Here is a related question, which has to do with where SF seems to be going today. We may agree that scientific extrapolation from the “big” transformative idea, is the essence of the genre. But much recent literature calling itself “SF” has simply abandoned science altogether.  It seems instead that anthropocentrism is back with a vengeance. SF has become a label under which to explore identity politics, race and gender issues, all from a decidedly unscientific perspective. The result is that, flying under the SF banner, we have a mishmash of concerns that have little or no relevance to science. What does this bode for the future of SF? Genres have thematic as well as formal limits. Do you think that, in terms of issues, SF as genre is dying?


Not dying, but changing. I like that some writers are increasingly concerned with making books that are not sloppy, that can be reread. But young writers are fools to follow a trend or theory. Sure you can illuminate identity politics, race and gender through the lens of sf, often by indirection; even Star Trek did that. Sf is a big tent. I doubt most readers go for it as a mask over current social comment, though.


  1. Now let’s give this change a positive spin. Some see the above as a “new SF,” SF for a global age. They also see this tendency opening up a new, globalized, field of forms. For example, Carl Freedman’s describes the work of China Mieville as “weird fiction,” a blend of SF, surrealism, fantasy, magic realism, horror, and much more. Even more multicultural, Nalo Hopkinson, in her website, stretches the already vague “SF” label by calling it “subversive fiction.” SF has become an open tent, and these writers want to be under it. How do you see this development? Can you live comfortably with it as a necessary transformation of the genre?


There’s nothing more subversive in modern times than the piston of science and technology. It transcends cultures and current fashions, liberating us from prior assumptions as it goes. Blending in new approaches is exactly what I wanted to do in the 1970s, and I’m happy to see others try. I never was a joiner of movements and dislike reading political ideas from fiction as though stories were operating manuals for life. I find “weird fiction” less attractive as a reader because I miss a sense of constraint in a story. If anything can happen, nothing’s really going on.


  1. To change direction, let’s talk about narrative form in SF. Reading your works, notably the novels, I find a common thread in space adventure. I argue that you have brought “space opera” into the realm of space epic. It strikes me that, of all the narrative forms of SF, space adventure may be central to the genre, for it offers the possibility of a powerful mix of advanced science, adventure, “sense of wonder,” religion and, yes, even anthropocentrism—the inevitable homecoming. Could I have your thoughts on the potentialities of this form? Why should we be reading such fiction today, rather than just another dull “realist” novel?

Plato noted in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. Definitely a literary problem for realism!

I like space adventure blending into epic, and without setting off to do so, wrote the 6 volume Galactic Center sequence because ideas kept coming forth. Space was the central image of the 20th Century, and I suspect its true emergence is coming only now, with commercial firms readying hotels in orbit. The long range future of humanity will be bleak without the resource reservoir of the solar system to tap. That’s a fundamental truth, and sf was the first to see it; most don’t even see it now. There are no truly strange places left on this world, and for a roving, over-the-horizon species, that’s a troubling problem. But imagination can solve it.


  1. Let’s turn to another form that SF does well—the short story. I have often felt that stories provide the other pole for SF, insofar as they develop, as in a laboratory, the ideas that give rise to longer novels. I especially like your stories, as they do two things: they locate the reader in the here-and-now of “doing science,” while at the same time they open windows on mysteries of the cosmos, which become—given the difference in time scales—private experiences. Your stories also provide a solid template for “novelization”—for instance “Exposures” becomes Cosm. I would like your thoughts on the role of the short story, both in the development of SF in general, and in your own writing experience. Do you feel that these stories offer you a “lyrical” dimension, as opposed to the space epic?


I doubt I ever thought that “Exposures” becomes Cosm. Maybe so. Cosm I wrote as a satire of academic/scientific life, and even attempted a black woman as the central figure. I got a lot of sour flak about even trying to do that. I actually modeled the woman after several people I knew.

Of course short stories in their compression and focus can have great power. They’re fine for trying out ideas. I was amazed to find in one of my first fanzines, written at age 14, a 2 page story which clearly prefigures the concerns of Timescape! Plainly my unconscious has been mulling on these questions of time for a long while. I thought my interest came from a paper I wrote on tachyons while a Postdoc at Livermore, published in Physical Review and one of my most referenced papers. (Edward Teller contributed, too, but didn’t want his name on the paper since people would assume he did all the work.)

So short stories are like experiments; novels resemble military campaigns, especially in the long hard marches in the middle. You can indeed wax lyrical in them at small cost; it becomes an “atmospheric” story.

I especially like short stories because I often wrote them in one sitting. Once I deliberately wrote a story in one hour just to see if I could. They resemble surfing, which I still do—forcing you to be in the moment.


Now to your “world view.” You have written essays such as “Pascal’s Terror.” In Deep Time, you reflect on ways in which short-lived humans might leave their “mark” on the vast expanses of time. In a story like “Mozart on Morphene” you openly meditate on the possible role of human reason in the face of infinity. All of this sounds very Pascalian: man as thinking reed, weak yet unique because it alone thinks. Your reflections on mankind’s role in the universe occur in the context of science far “advanced” beyond Pascal. But do you think we have gone beyond Pascal’s “human condition” today? Or will it forever be our enigma and limit?


I suspect definitions of the human condition that focus on our limitations, since we keep transcending them. I also suspect genetics will make possible this century directed evolution of a nonhuman hominid, an epic moment. (I founded some genetic companies devoted to longevity, mostly because it’s now possible to deliver results.) But I can see coming potentials that will test our definitions of ourselves through direct technological methods.

Still, our species has limits, though we know only vaguely what they are. My conservative side says, learn from these limits. My liberal, sf side says, transcend them. We amplify our abilities artificially, from eyeglasses to implants (my left shoulder is artificial) to the coming possibilities of mind/machine interfaces. It’s hard to see how our exploding frontiers of the mind will ever fade; we’re far too early in this game.

Our reason and talents come out of evolution, so perhaps we have enough to comprehend big issues like the origin, nature and destiny of our universe. Our incredible mathematical abilities are a generalization of abilities we developed for living as hunter-gatherers. On the face of it, that’s amazing in itself.


  1. As you know, post-war French SF has moved in a dramatically different direction from American SF. Instead of exploring outer space, writers like Michel Jeury have turned their explorations to the mindspace, to problems of “subjective reality.” There is here a clear resistance to neuroscience’s attempt to fully map the functions of the brain, chasing out all residue of the Cartesian “ghost” as last vestige of the human self in the neutral world of neurons. This may seem reactionary, yet neuroscience today, experimenting with such things as telekinesis, is discovering there may be more to the problem of mind than physics. Do you see, after the vast cosmos, and the probabilistic “worlds” of quantum theory, neuroscience becoming a fertile area for SF extrapolation? Do you see a path here leading back to the metaphysics of the “self”?

Of course neuroscience has plentiful sf implications. The self is a useful construct to order our interior models of the world and ourselves. It may be an illusion, but it’s a useful one. But as Greg Egan and others show, there are many ways of doing that, and coming technologies will teach us more about ourselves than philosophy. Radio astronomy told us more in the TwenCen than thousands of years of philosophy, too.


  1. A couple of final questions. First, one notices throughout your career a continuous interest in the question of human longevity and scientific solutions to this question—geriatric medicine, cyronics. The question is basically an existential one—the preservation of our unique selves, mind and body. It has become a social, and now political issue—from the cyborgs of cyberpunk to recent EU treatises on the political issues of “human enhancement.” Please give me your most current thoughts on this question, which is one of mythic proportions.

SF strives against limitations, and death is the big one. I founded Methuselah Flies LLC and Genescient to use genetics based on long-lived flies, all to ferret out human longevity genes. It’s working so far, we have products that work, derived from genomics–and this is just the beginning of applying the genomic revolution to the real world.

Moral suasion has done little to improve human nature, though education is the best way to do it. You learn as you age, after all. Longer lived people make better, longer use of their education, particularly the hard-won fruit of experience–and bring wisdom to the table, then. Educating women improves society generally, for example, so Muslim societies see it as too radical an idea. Extending human mean lifespans has done wonders; the longest lived nations are the most advanced, liberal and educated. We don’t much notice the steadily expanding lifespans and healthspans around us, as they’re gradual. We’ve seen a 50% increase in mean lifespan per century for two centuries now. If we continue that, in 2100 the average person will live to 100. People might work productively into their 80s. This means a longer healthspan, too, because genomic processes can upregulate genes that carry out repairs.

Beyond that, cryonics is the ultimate act of faith in the future. The odds are low but the rewards immense. It’s a gamble that will probably fail, but it does allow people to die with hope. Yet so far every major sf writer who wrote about cryonics—Simak, Pohl, Heinlein, Asimov—has turned down a free freeze. Hard to explain.


  1. Given today’s critical and publishing climate, dominated by what I see as ideological issues, what direction do you see your writing career taking?  Will it be more commentary on public science policy (the Benford-Rose blog)? Could you see yourself experimenting with the sort of encyclopedic alternate history novels being produced by a Neil Stephenson? Do you want to go back to the space epic, or turn to the short story? Please share your thoughts with us.


My larger aims are already accomplished. I’ve written novels about how scientists live, love and work (Timescape, Artifact, Cosm, Eater, Chiller) and a space epic (Galactic Center), various fun novels, over 200 short stories, 3 nonfiction books… I have no desire to write mammoth books; my longest, CHILLER, under a pseudonym (Sterling Blake), was a mere 200,000 words.

I think we are rushing toward terrible times, with all pressures rising: climate chaos, resource depletion, overpopulation, the rats-in-a-cage frenzy of maddened crowds. So maybe pointing out ways we can best solve these problems by looking large is the best use of my time. I’d urge geoengineering, which is inevitable, use of space resources, a hard push for education in oppressed societies, and bringing down the remaining tyrannies.

To do that in fiction demands sf—plainly mainstream realist fiction doesn’t grasp the problems, much less solutions. Proust, Joyce, Faulkner all saw novels mostly as arenas of technical and formal innovation. So they spoke of Paris, Dublin, Yoknapatawpha–cultures they knew. I could just write novels about scientists; plenty of room for improvement there. Science  was the biggest influence in my life. But I side with Wells in his debate with Henry James. Our situation will get desperate, and fiction writers can help by thinking through future societies. Stan Robinson has made this his life’s work.

Mostly, though, as I turn 70 and look forward, I want to have fun doing whatever I choose. Writing allows a craftsman’s intimate satisfactions. I’ve always written because I liked to, and if people read me, even better. I’ve been incredibly lucky to write what people wanted to read—another surprise for me. I’m grateful for that.


11. Greg, Now that the book is finished and you have read the manuscript, do you have any comments to make, or anything that you would like to add? Do you, for instance, feel that the choice of works to be discussed (taking into consideration space restrictions in this monograph) are central to your opus? The author should always have the last word.


I found it surprisingly slow reading. Immersing in books and stories written decades ago draws one back against the currents of inexorable time. Revisiting those works returned me to ideas and emotions felt long before and very nearly forgotten.  I also saw patterns I did not consciously construct but clearly are there, welling up from my unconscious. I found myself living through the process of creating them, a dense process I had not engaged ever before.

The centrality of the Galactic Center series in my work became manifest here, and its themes and leitmotifs surfaced again for me. Because I wrote the series over a quarter of a century, I deliberately did not reread the prior novels, for reasons I knew intuitively but cannot state even now. (When adding a new last chapter to Across the Sea of Suns for its reissue by Bantam, my editor Lou Aronica remarked on how I had kept the flavor of the rest of the novel, and obviously had carefully unified it with the rest of the novel…but tellingly, this remark startled me, for it had not even occurred to me to reread any of the book. That happened with each later volume.)

Your treatment of a few short stories was insightful. Some surprised me: “Eater (1999) is clearly an expansion, on a massive scale, of his classic story “Exposures.””  Yes, but I didn’t know that until you said so. “Of Space/Time and the River” and “Mozart on Morphine” both came directly from my scientific life and began as notes written to get my experiences down before they faded, with no prospect of being fiction. Only later, awakening from dreams which used this material, did I see that I had somehow warped them into fiction. The stories were a breeze to write; all the hard work was done while asleep!

I liked your connections to philosophy, especially French thought, Descartes etc. (I’ve read a lot of philosophy, especially the Germans—though I’m not really a metaphysics type—and like Heidegger, whose ideas about bestanden etc. influenced me. As well, Heidegger’s saying, “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” Heidegger’s student Herbert Marcuse I knew at UCSD, often sitting beside him and Angela Davis at lunch, as they spoke reverentially of Stalin (!) and deplored Tronsky. (Indeed, Davis later won the Lenin Prize and held a chair at UCSC. It took a while for me to disconnect these plainly stupid and evil ideas from the actual Heideggerian philosophy beneath.)

A writer is never an expert on his own work. I’m certainly not. Generally I found your insightful readings quite on target, and have now a different sense of my own work. I do not know what others will make of my writing, which has always been an embracing sidelight in my life, and I appreciate this attempt to see it whole.





Verne to Varley: Hard SF Evolves

Published by Gregory Benford on October 13th, 2013

Consider two novels separated by 127 years in publication, both dealing with the moon, yet oddly alike. Both tell us something about the evolution of hard science fiction.

Arguably, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon announced for a broad audience the invention of modern science fiction—stories with the scientific content foregrounded, as much a character as any person, and lending credibility to the imaginings to come. Verne boasted incorrectly that “I have invented myself” this new fiction (Poe had a clear prior claim), but he did make the new form widely popular, and became the first and last sf writer to be blessed by the Pope for doing so.

John Varley’s Steel Beach (1992) is a rich, sprawling novel, about five times longer than Verne’s and a thoroughly late-twentieth century take on the technophilia Verne pioneered. Between these there are odd connections.

After his first forays into stage drama, Verne wrote over a hundred “extraordinary voyage” novels, while Varley has about five, counting his latest, Red Thunder (2002). Verne celebrated machines and admired engineers, yet gave us rapt descriptions of natural wonders. Later, his plays were amusing and hugely popular. His play Journey Through the Impossible was only translated in 2003, and as Jean-Michel Margot remarks in his introduction, forms a “hinge between the two halves of Verne’s life”—theater and voyages of exploration.

Varley is also much interested in the stage, as in his solar system rondo, The Golden Globe. He features women characters and warmly recalls his own teenage technophilia, as in Red Thunder. Listen as Varley’s first-person, wisecracking point of view, Hildy, surveys his world:

I took a deep breath and smelled freshly-poured concrete. I drank the sights and sounds and scents of a newborn world: the sharp primary colors of wire bundles sprouting from unfinished walls like the first buds on a bare bough, the untarnished gleam of copper, silver, gold, aluminum, titanium, the whistle of air through virgin ducts, undeflected, unmuffled, bringing with it the crisp sharpness of the light machine oil that for centuries has coated new machinery, fresh from the factory … all these things had an effect on me. They meant warmth, security, safety from the eternal vacuum, the victory of humanity over the hostile forces that never slept. In a word, progress. (12)

Witty, colorful, a jab at our present environmental sensitivities, a technophile’s casual brushoff to uninspected naturalism. Verne, too, regarded limits as mostly social. His engineers love the technologically sweet, which in turn opens our exploring eyes to the world in its full majesty.

Varley’s moon is humanity’s in a way that the Earth cannot be, for we made it. Indeed, Varley’s future history (which he points out in an afterword isn’t exactly compatible with this novel) turns about the armature of a great tragedy: aliens arrive, kick us off our planet, and we scavenge and scrabble for a living throughout the rest of the solar system. We are a species forced out of our evolutionary niche, hurried along to our destiny, cast up on a steel beach of our own making.
And it’s glorious. Varley has obviously spent a long while assembling this novel, and it shows some structural signs of it. The plot follows a deftly polished smartass “newspad” reporter, sprinting around his/her (sex change as fashion statement) rapidfire world.

Tech wonders sprout before the eye. Sudden, juicy, newsworthy events unfold, with Hildy always at the center. She hustles stories for her newspad, The News Nipple, in perpetual competition with The Straight Shit. It’s A Year in the Lunar Life, with rather tenuous superstructure to keep one turning the pages.

Hildy has a nagging bit of a problem with suicide. Why this should be occupies much musing, much of it interesting, though without any profound conclusion. He/she passes the hundred-birthday mark, and we become aware that this person has accumulated strikingly few close emotional ties in all that time. Her intimates are fascinating, the best job Varley has ever done at secondary characterization—but there’s plainly something seriously wrong with Hildy if these are all she has in her life.

This is broader, fresher ground for Varley. It’s refreshing, not only in its meticulously thought-through technodazzle, but in its absolute confidence that we can save ourselves through our own crafts. I recalled several times Verne’s offhand remark in From the Earth to the Moon, “The Yankees, the world’s best mechanics, are engineers the way Italians are musicians and Germans are metaphysicians: by birth” (§1).

Hugo Gernsback bought into Verne’s explorer-tinkerer heroes when he began Amazing Stories. Verne’s Americans fit: Barbicane, J.T. Maston, Cyrus and the crew of Mysterious Island, etc. Gernsback featured Verne from Amazing’s first issue, his editorials making the Frenchman out to be more of an engineer than he was. Amazing reprinted such stories as Topsy-Turvy (The Purchase of the North Pole). This mega-engineering fable features an explosion at Mt. Kilimanjaro designed to right the Earth’s poles, all the better to get at coal reserves in the north; imagine selling such a story today!

Yet sell these did, contributing to Heinlein’s engineer-supermen to come. Heinlein seldom spoke of Verne, apparently much preferring Wells—he remarks in Grumbles from the Grave, “The ‘wild fantasies’ of Jules Verne turned out to be much too conservative” (149)—but the line of descent is clear.

One could write a telling history of American sf over the last three decades titled “The Sons of Heinlein.” From Alexei Panshin through Joe Haldeman to Varley and beyond, many of the most innovative of us have stood squarely in Heinlein’s shadow. Unlike Wells, Verne loved explorers throughout his career, as did Heinlein.

Varley knows this and, as Steel Beach darkens and wanders, he turns explicitly to what this tradition means in modern sf. The last third of the work circles around the Heinleiners, a small, self-selected elite who want to cast off the constraints of the moon and go exploring, to rebuild and launch the wrecked starship named for … guess who?

Varley is at his witty best when describing this band of malcontents. “A lot of ship’s captains were Heinleiners, a lot of solitary miners. None of them were happy—possibly that type of person can never be happy—but at least they were away from the masses of humanity and less likely to get into trouble if offered an intolerable insult—like bad breath, or inappropriate laughter.”

Still, Varley harbors few illusions about the celebrated can-do style. Their tech works, all right, but “it still had the look of Heinleiner engineering, wherein nothing is ever any better than it has to be. Maybe if they get time to move beyond prototypes they’ll get more elegant and more careful, but in the meantime it’s ‘Don’t bend that wrench. Get a bigger hammer.’ Heinleiner toolboxes must be filled with bubble gum and bobby pins.”

They brusquely advertise the familiar social libertarianism, too. Describing our age, the leader of the Heinleiners lectures: “Any drug that dulled the senses, or heightened them, or altered the consciousness in any way was viewed as sinful—except for the two most physically harmful drugs: alcohol and nicotine. Something relatively harmless, like heroin, was completely illegal, because it was addictive, as if alcohol was not. No one had the right to determine what he put into his own body, they had no medical bill of rights. Barbaric, agreed?”

And Hildy does, steeped in the tradition and ethos of hardnosed, crackerbarrel, hard sf. Where did that spirit come from? The USA midwest, surely—but also from France.

Varley’s moon as a steel beach descends straight from Verne’s. He gives us an almost hallucinogenic urban landscape, with cavernous bubbles devoted to immense feats of nostalgia: the Disneylands replicating Texas (where Varley grew up, well described here) and other lost Earthly paradises. But the restless, meandering energy of the novel is plainly seeking something.
We’re more subtle now, of course. Urban preoccupations are the stuff of sitcoms and the soaps, no longer the province of Kafka and Camus. Thoughts of mortality and the world’s passing wonders sit in the frontal lobes, but something’s simmering in the back.

Consider Verne.

In 1865 there were five other interplanetary adventure books published in French, with titles like Voyage to Venus, An Inhabitant of the Planet Mars, Voyage to the Moon, and even a survey by an astronomer, Imaginary Worlds and Real Worlds. They featured balloons. One writer did have a dim idea of using rockets—but his squirted water out the end, not fiery gas. Then he ruined the effect, though, by thriftily collecting the ejected water to use again. Elementary common sense should have told him that such a ship would gain no momentum that way. The water’s push would be cancelled when the water was caught.
Verne made fun of the invention, saying that his own method, a cannon, would certainly work. (The squirter that recycles its water idea had a puzzling appeal; it was proposed as late as 1927 by an engineer.)

He invented the expansive sense in fantastic literature, but he did it by dreaming exactly. That’s what gave his work the headlong confidence those other volumes of 1865 lacked—which doomed them.

His method gave many of the telling little details which now strike us as so right. Since the USA was the most likely nation to undertake so bold a venture, where would his veterans place the cannon? Verne natters on about getting into the right “plane of the ecliptic” (§5), which is a reasonable motivation, but side-steps the more detailed issue. He knew that to artillery gunners, earth’s rotation was important in predicting where a shell would land—while it is in flight, the land moves beneath it.

In aiming for the moon, there’s an even bigger effect. Think of the earth as a huge merry-go-round. If you stand at the north pole, the earth spins under your feet, but you won’t move at all. Stand on the equator, though, and the earth swings you around at a speed of about a thousand miles an hour. You don’t feel it, because the air is moving, too.
But that speed matters a lot if you’re aiming to leap into orbit. Verne had the crucial idea right—that escape velocity is the essential in getting away from Earth’s gravitational pull. The added boost from the Earth’s rotation led him to believe that the American adventurers would seek a spot as close to the equator as possible, while still keeping it within their nation. A glance at the map told him that the obvious sites were in Texas or Florida.

This is exactly what happened in the American space program of nearly a century later, when the launch site of the Apollo program became a political football between Texas and Florida. Florida won, as Verne predicted. Not for political reasons, though. NASA engineers wanted their rocket stages to fall harmlessly into the ocean. He even picked Stone’s Hill, on almost the exact latitude as Cape Kennedy, the Apollo launch site.

Similarly, Verne got correctly the shape of the capsule, the number of astronauts (three), weightlessness in space, a splash-down at sea picked up by the American Navy, and even the use of rockets to change orbit and return to earth.

To give his technology authority, his characters were cool dudes of geometry: “Here and there he wrote a pi or an x2. He even appeared to extract a certain cube root with the greatest of ease” (§7). This is the birth of “hard” science fiction—that variety which stays loyal to the facts, and the way engineers and scientists work, as nearly as the author knows them. No lonely experimenters on mountaintops, inventing Frankensteins out of dead body parts. No easy improvising around tough problems. Verne’s tinkerers work in groups, argue, make hard choices. Audiences of his time found such detail gripping and convincing.
Writers followed in this tradition, such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and, of course, the other master sf writer of the nineteenth century, H.G. Wells. All felt that scientific facts and attitudes should serve as springboards for imaginative flights, often to the ends of social commentary and outright satire. Wells soon straitjacketed his imagination in the service of his political ends, but Verne never did.

Verne influenced even those who didn’t quite know who he was. Isaac Asimov once told me a story about when he was still a young science fiction fan, and found himself listening to a lecture about a great foreign writer, a master of fantastic literature. But Asimov couldn’t recognize the name. Giving the French pronunciation, the lecturer said, “Surely you must know Zueel Pfern,” and described From the Earth to the Moon. Asimov replied in his Brooklyn accent, “Oh, you mean Jewels Voine!”

I had a similar experience, not realizing for years that Verne was not an American. After all, he seemed to write like an American and set many of his novels in the USA. In tribute, I name a character in my first hard sf novel, Jupiter Project, after one of his.

Verne had intended to work in this scrupulous way all along, when he was a struggling writer. Though his first love was theater, he felt a deep affinity for scientifically plausible tales of exploration. In 1856 Jules de Goncourt wrote in his Journal after reading Baudelaire’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe, “The scientific marvelous, a fable of A + B; … No more poetry; imagination via blows of logic…. Something monomanical. Things having more of a role than people; love being replaced by deductions … the foundation of the novel displaced and transported from the heart to the head” (257-57). Verne grew up in this tradition, as Costello remarks in his Jules Verne (78).

And what dreams Verne had! We can grasp how much he changed the world by recalling real events which appeared first as acts of imagination. The American submarine Nautilus, its name taken from Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, surfaced at the north pole and talked by radio with the President of the United States, less than a century after the novel was published. The explorer Haroun Tazieff, a Verne fan who had read Journey to the Center of the Earth, climbed down into the rumbling throat of a volcano in Africa, seeking secrets of the earth’s core. An Italian venturer coasted over the icy Arctic wastes in a dirigible, just as Verne proposed. A French explorer crawled into the caves of southern Europe, stumbling upon the ancient campgrounds of early man, standing before underground lakes where mammoths once roasted over crackling fires—as Verne had envisioned. In 1877 Verne foresaw a journey through the entire solar system, a feat accomplished by NASA’s robot voyagers a century later.

Varley’s future tech is equally sophisticated for our age, and far more self-aware. All the latest techs are here—nano-, bio- and compu-tech—with some interesting blends and cross-fertilization. Horses you can hold on your hand. Dentistry done by micro-agents in the drinking water. There are even some new sexual kinks, though alas, it seems a fundamentally limited medium.
More to the point, the ideas and inventions cohere. Today we of the hard sf school have evolved a code of play that Varley used to fine advantage. Memorably, at the big battle scene marking the closing movements of the novel, he presents us with a problem. The Heinleiners have invented a special “null-suit” that protects against everything—vacuum, radiation, bullets. But in an assault, people shot with machine guns emerge from their null-suits a bright lobster color, and dead.

Why? Varley lets us stew in this a bit, then unfurls the answer: conservation of energy. Sure, you can block bullets, but their kinetic energy has to go somewhere. A sizable fraction reappears inside the null-suit as thermal, infrared emission, cooking the hapless folk it was supposed to protect.

It’s a nice trick. This reader felt pleased that he had figured it out. To me, this is as much as a hard sf writer needs to do.
I’ll admit that as a physicist I was interested enough to actually work out the numbers, and I found, as I suspected, that it’s a good notion—but a dud. There isn’t enough energy in a burst of machine-gun slugs to cook a person. At most you might raise body temperature by a fraction of a degree. This is pretty obvious, once you think about it. How many gunshot victims suffer sudden fevers from the spent slug energy?

My point, though, is that Varley has done all the homework a reader can expect. Foreground delights like this are an essential to the hard sf strategy, which typically slides its deeper themes in while you are distracted.

I was reminded of Heinlein’s pages of rocketry calculations in Farmer in the Sky. Wells did much less of this, perhaps because he had little technical education. Still, Verne was mostly self-educated as was Wells, yet he ladled in so many calculations about his cannon and shell that the reader of 1865 apparently didn’t mind the easily intuited, underlying embarrassment: his moon-launching cannon would have squashed its crew at the firing. Their author does give them some relief with a water shock absorber, discussed in detail. But he must have known that it would not have helped much.

It is a bit curious why Verne chose this brute force method, when the rocket was known to him—though only as a minor military weapon and as fireworks. In Around the Moon, the sequel published five years later (imagine having to wait that long to find out what happened to the expedition!—readers were more tolerent then), he showed that he understood the principles of rocketry, since he let his capsule fire several, to return their ship to earth.

Probably Verne wanted the luscious specifics of artillery to light up his story—to ground it in reality. People knew that cannons worked with awful efficiency. Rockets would have seemed to his audience rather odd, speculative and unlikely.
But in another sense, Verne was not wrong at all about artillery and outer space. Maybe he just saw further than our time. Though rockets opened the space frontier, through the inventions of the American Robert Goddard (an ardent Verne fan), cannon are making their comeback.

In 1991 the US government began a research program aiming to deliver payloads into orbit around the earth at a low price—by using guns. The project has an uncanny resemblance to Verne’s. The barrel, reinforced by steel and concrete, is a narrow pipe about three hundred feet long. An explosion starts the process, driving hydrogen gas against the underside of a bullet-shaped capsule. The goal is to place a capsule in orbit within three years. Once there, it will use rockets to maneuver itself into a proper, nearly circular orbit about the earth—just as Verne predicted.

Why now, nearly 130 years after From the Earth to the Moon? Finally our engineering can deal with the massive acceleration—thousands of times earth’s “gee.” I had mentioned this possibility to Heinlein in the 1980s. Hearing the idea, he instantly related it to Verne, and remarked that though he did not refer to Verne very much, he had read “the Frenchman” at the same age as his discovery of Wells. To Heinlein, they were both founding fathers of an aesthetic he embraced.
I rather like such resonances across the 127 years. To Verne and Wells, predicting the future was not the main arena of what would become hard sf. Surface detail hides the grave issues that emerge from science as a lived experience, and I suspect form a deep portion of the world-view of even its most Analog-style practitioners.

By divorcing ourselves mentally from the workings of the world, we see ourselves in stark contrast with its eternal laws, slow movements, and grand time scales. We are mayflies compared with the swing of planets, the lifetimes of stars. Even now, exploring missions to the outer solar system take the meat out of a whole career to plan, design, build, launch the vehicle, and gather in its data. So in the end, many hard sf works return to human mortality and its implications as their profound theme.
Varley warily prowls around the expansive spirit in this novel, nudging it, drawn like a moth to a flame it desires but cannot quite trust. Suicide echoes in Steel Beach, a somber questioning of all exhuberance. In Varley, Camus meets Verne, two Frenchmen who would not have recognized each other. Seldom attentive to either women or religion, Verne the boyish rationalist did evolve from technophile to a darker view, but his optimism never died. To a man who says, “Why remain alive?” there is only the hard sf writer’s answer: “Because it’s fun—and the alternative is boring.” Or so I feel. That’s the point— ultimately, emotions drive our selves, our technology, our dreams.

And Varley? After showing in great detail Hildy’s emotional isolation, Varley leads us to expect a rather sentimental—though wise—finish: she finds deep personal connections, and begins anew.

Not so. Her new romance dies in a single telephone call—the lover hangs up, thinking it’s not really important, and there’s a newsy crisis abuilding, after all. Her accidental but overpowering pregnancy does not lead to happy motherhood. As a writer, I savored Varley setting these fat ducks up in an obliging row, then shooting them down.

But what’s a cynic to do? Despite all the wisecracking—and here Varley is second to none, including Heinlein and Haldeman—in the end he is drawn back to the same emotional ground that animated Verne. To me, it is a true surprise ending, because I thought Hildy was far too distanced from her world to ever enter it so whole-heartedly.

Hildy volunteers to help put the starship Robert A. Heinlein back together with the proverbial string and glue. She’ll be the publicity hound for the Good Ol’ Up and Out, a role Heinlein fulfilled, indirectly, for decades. Heinlein’s trouble as a novelist was endings, and Varley knows that, too:

I promised you no neat conclusion, and I think I’ve delivered on that. I warned you of loose ends, and I can see a whole tangle of them. A novel which aspires to be about a year in a life can be a bit lumpy and malformed, in the cause of art that resembles life. But the book ends by voting for the great up-and-out, the horizon, the frontier. What will we find out there? I don’t know either, and that’s why I’m going along. Alien intelligences? I wouldn’t bet against it. Strange worlds? I’d say that’s a lock. Vast empty spaces, human tragedy and hope…. Think what a story it’ll be…. (479)

Very Heinlein. Very Verne.

Verne died only a few months before the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina—but he had seen such flights in his mind’s eye decades before, and the brothers had read his novels. We now know that Leo Szilard got the idea of a fission chain reaction in uranium after reading Wells’s The World Set Free, which in 1914 invented the terms “chain reaction” and “atom bomb.” Like Wells, Verne worried increasingly about the use of technology in war. Wells became a world figure, talking to Stalin and Teddy Roosevelt, urging them toward the socialist dawn, while Verne preferred the romantic figure of Captain Nemo. Wells seldom thought of grand natural frontiers, and so fathered much social sf, while Verne’s heart was always with the explorers.

Both strains echo in hard sf writers such as Greg Bear, David Brin, Greg Egan, and Stephen Baxter today. In this sense, the main themes of nineteenth-century sf remain strong today. It may seem ironic that Verne’s verve for exploration and technology found a strong echo in American sf, while in France today he has few literary descendants. But France itself is notably technophilic, even if its literary mavens are not; it leads the world in percentage of nuclear powered electricity.

We can get a feeling for Verne’s faith in the long range possibilities of humanity from the remarkable memorial his son placed over his father’s grave. It shows Verne with hair streaming, as if he is in flight, breaking free of his shroud and tomb, rising up magnificently from the dead. Above it are simply his name and the words, Onward to immortality and eternal youth. It’s hard to be more optimistic than that, and Americans still can, even if the French literary world prefers not.

Varley, too, expresses, in suitably technohip garb, something that strikes from the same deep ground. His Red Thunder is a direct hommage to Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo—hip, but not cynical—and both are about amateurs going off exploring, à la Verne. After so much sf-noir about burned-out street louts with improbable tech skills, tropes copied from the hardboiled detectives of a half century back, Varley’s vision seems refreshingly new, though warmly old.

Goncourt, Edmond and Jules. Journal: Mémoires de la vie littérarie. 1885. Paris: Fasquelle and Flammarion, 1956. 256-57.
Costello, Peter, Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. New York: Scribner, 1978.
Heinlein, Robert A. Grumbles from the Grave. Ed. Virginia Heinlein. New York: Del Rey, 1989.
Varley, John, Red Thunder. New York: Ace, 2002.
—–. Steel Beach. New York: Putnam, 1992.
Verne, Jules. From the Earth to the Moon. New York: Scribner, 1873.
—–. Journey Through the Impossible. New York: Prometheus Books, 2004.



Published by Gregory Benford on September 11th, 2013

I appeared on a PBS series several years ago, making comments on Deep Issues, with a required serious frown … and those are now surfacing.

Here’s a list of links to them for the curious (or masochistic):


Published by Gregory Benford on July 8th, 2013



and order direct — well before the launch in mid August.


For much background, see

Summer SF Storybundle—8 big SF novels, name your own price

Published by Gregory Benford on July 8th, 2013


A very cool way for indie authors to co-op. Check out this bundle of eight SF novels by me, Frank Herbert, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, David Farland, Mike Resnick, Mike Stackpole, and B.V. Larson. Available at  Here’s the press release:

Science fiction can take you from one side of the universe to the other, and an infinite number of ideas in between. That all can’t fit in one StoryBundle—but this new set, available July 2 through July 23, covers a broad landscape of ideas.

StoryBundle’s Sci-Fi Bundle is curated by #1 international bestselling SF author Kevin J. Anderson, and includes his own novel Hopscotch, which he considers one of his best novels. I do, too! “SF has often dealt with the idea of two characters swapping bodies and dealing with the consequences,” Anderson says. “But imagine a future where everybody can do it, all the time, changing bodies and lives like changing clothes.”


There are six novels comprising the Sci-Fi Bundle. Name your own price, and get a large chunk of the imaginative universe. But those who choose to pay more than a minimum of $10 receive two bonus novels as well: The Stars in Shroud, a hard-to-find early novel by  me, Gregory Benford, who has won or been nominated for multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, and an amazing find—High-Opp, a never-before-published complete novel by Frank Herbert (author of DUNE), an edgy dystopia of class warfare.


Published by Gregory Benford on June 16th, 2013

OPENING REMARKS and much more online now:
at the Starship Century Symposium, May 21-22