ORBITFALL — #1 of the SETI Library Series

Published by Gregory Benford on October 5th, 2012

That first step’s gotta be a doozy…
Felix Baumgartner steps out tomorrow at 120,000 ft, to fall and break the sound barrier for the first time without an airplane.
I published a story years ago about doing this from orbit, the obvious next step…except this time it’s a woman, accompanied by an alien who wants the thrill:


Ruth liked the view, at least.
In the frame chair atop an open deck she had a commanding perspective on the grand curve of Earth, from 110 kilometers up. High enough to boil your blood in seconds, if the visor before her eyes should pop.
And suit pressure loss was just one of the possibilities ahead.
The thought made her press back from the drop. Her hardened suit made movement slow, but she found that rugged heft reassuring. There were manifolds and buffers, shock absorbers and thermal dispersers galore – and she sensed the mass of them as a slowing-down of every movement. Weightless, yes, but swimming in molasses.
What is a librarian doing here? Why did I agree to this stunt?
It might be good for her career, but that wasn’t the reason. Call it a sense of adventure.
The vanes down her back sank into the spongy chair. In the chair next to her the alien stared down at the serene blue-white curve. The upper atmosphere glowed in its afternoon shimmer. Clouds lurked far below like icing on a spherical cake. Behind them the Star Tower was a thin line pointing from its ocean base south of Sri Lanka and on out to the counter-weight beyond view.
To her right sat the alien, blocking her view to the north. It was large, humanoid and sat in an odd way. Slowly it turned to take it all in and then stared at her again. Its name was Akralan and until this moment she had not thought about what the word might mean. A librarian should think of such things. What else had she ignored?
She let the view enchant her a bit more. No way out of this, so be calm.
With Akralan and a support team of everything from engineers to diplomats, they had lifted from the SETI Library on Luna. She had enjoyed the electromagnetic sling, its soaring views of crisp craters flashing by. They had then coasted into rendezvous with the top of the orbital tower. There had been enough time in the downward elevator ride to practice and prepare, including exercises and tech briefings, fitting her suit, mastering its controls.
They rode down to the first Tower station, 100 kilometers above its floating ocean base. Now she and Akralan were jetting up and away, to more amazing views. In moments they would reach their drop position above Tamil Nadu in India, the green splotch spreading below. Cloudy knots of purpling anger fought along the coast.
Too late to back out…
She wondered if their fall would avoid the developing weather.
A long way down, indeed. What had her mother used to say? Adventure means opportunity. Sure, Mom.
They were hovering now. Not orbiting, moving at speeds of tens of kilometers a second. This would have been impossible as a true reentry. All they had to worry about was gravity.
Suit check. White ribs over elbows, shoulders and knees, secured. Red accents of reinforced joints, vanes along her forearms. Heat shield for rigidity and thermal screen. The signature Orbital Outfitters logo on her chest, which carried the smart parachute controls. All up and running.
Her comm rang in her left ear. It was the Prefect, the tone said. Probably calling with some phony last-minute encouragement. She ignored it. I’m out of my mind, but feel free to leave a message.
Akralan turned to look at her, its diamond eyes glittering. The cone nose on the forehead flared wide and red. Excitement? Reading hominid-like alien expressions was a typical error, she knew. But hard to resist.
Breathe easily, they had said. She tried.
It reached over and clasped her arm. Did it want to go now? No way to tell, but the countdown meter available in her left eye said no, there were – with a shock she saw it ticking down, 13 seconds to go.
Somehow the Earth’s luminous beauty had stolen away her time. Automatically she raced through the drill. Just jump out. Legs together. Arms out straight for torque control. No need to pitch down. Just let gravity happen.
She ritually gave her parachute straps a tug. Drogue, yes. Main, snug. No reason to abort there, none at all…
Ding. Time.
She thought about the Library and how safe it was, just her own comfortable office …. and unbuckled her harness.
Akralan did the same, eyes glittering as it followed her every move. Has it done this before? Is it feeling fear?
The eyes told her nothing.
She stood up. For the human species. Damned if she would let it go first.
She took a deep breath and leaped.
No sensation of movement. Weightless. She had already trained to suppress her falling reflexes so she could simply watch as the world hung there, ignoring her. Only after ten breaths – she refused to look at the timer – did she see any slight movement. The world was edging toward her.
And Akralan–? She turned her head slightly to find it and the drag of rushing air tugged at her. A soft whoosh told her she was moving even if her eyes did not.
There was Akralan. Behind her and to her right. She relaxed. This was not a race but it didn’t hurt that she was ahead. Slightly.
She banked her arms a bit and felt a slight spin. Corrected it by moving her arms oppositely. In control, just as her training said. No spins, if she reacted fast enough.
She kept her head looking down and peered to both sides. She felt prickly heat building in the suit and saw rippling air to the sides. Shock refraction. Rattling built along her legs and arms, humming into her body. The atmosphere was playing her like an instrument.
A wave of fear swept through her. But then it tickled. She barked out a laugh. Laughter is just a slowed down scream of terror. Where had she read that…?
The sky brightened and she stole a glance at her other meters in her right eye. Speed nearly a thousand kilometers an hour and climbing fast. A burr of sound coursed through her body. Wind resistance plucking at her. Whispers sang past her head.
The horizon flattened, losing its silky curve. Stars glimmered, bright and true, then faded. Blue fog gathered around her and the puffy clouds fled sideways. She hung in a vast space that whipped by her. Below was…purple.
Something shot by her. Akralan.
It described a helix wrapping around her, zooming past, and then It made a complicated move with its arms outstretched. It slowed, hovered so she could overtake. It waved its arms in darting moves and arced away, spinning the body. She dared not imitate that. Abruptly it banked back toward her and zipped across ahead of her. She could swear she saw the eyes glitter, the mouth pucker.
If we hit, what—
Akralan abruptly shot across her again and hovered, eyes glaring. Some kind of challenge?
It’s snout-nose flared red. It fanned its legs. Hanging only a meter away, it reached over and touched her shoulder. Fear flooded through her.
It had all started so simply. A simple call to the Prefect’s office.
The Prefect scowled, itself an unusual event. Normally he kept a blank face turned to his underlings, apparently feeling that it was up to them to yield information, while giving away none himself. But plainly today he was worried.
Ruth decided to tease, widening her eyes. “An alien? Here? The one who came through the Maze last month?”
“The first in four years, yes. It arrived without announcement, other than the braking flare of its ship – quite a small vessel, too.”
While the Prefect went on to describe the ship smaller than a house, Ruth made herself relax. She was a Librarian now, just promoted. Behind her lay the Trainee competition that sometimes made her quick to mock and to take offense with the other Trainees. Now she had to put away the need to prove oneself better than any Prefect twit who had not struggled with the ancient SETI texts for decades. Gone, she hoped, were the restlessness, angst and the nagging ache of the striver.
She cut into the Prefect’s engineering description. “What does that suggest about the nearest wormhole mouth?”
The Prefect eyed her as if she was asking for a state secret. Perhaps she was, at that. “The wormhole must lie within a light-month, the scientists say. The astronomers picked up his deceleration flare and worked backward from that. The engineers think that, given its apparent available reaction mass, it must have come from deep in the Oort cloud.”
“Um,” Ruth said. To get to Earth from the Oort cloud of icesteroids that hung far beyond Pluto, in that little time, implied enormous speeds. She calculated it meant tens of astronomical units in a day. “Impressive.”
“We would like to know more, and perhaps we shall. Thus far it acknowledges that it comes from a society that went through a SETI transmitting era, though not which one.”
“Odd,” Ruth said. “So we may have their signals, but we won’t know how to link them to…”
“Exactly. Mysterious. Further, it will not confirm that it transmits now.” The Prefect sighed. “Frustrating.”
“Maybe this mystery is … part of its ritual?”
“I suspect so. The speech translator who works with it says that after proper introductions – whatever that means – it will help us identify which of our SETI messages are theirs.”
Ruth bit her lip in thought. “Afraid to disclose their location?”
“Probably. It would not be the first hint that a SETI broadcast came from a site quite distant from the host society.”
The galactic Byzantium, Ruth thought. Intrigues within mysteries buried in shadowy plots. “So you and I can work with this alien now?”
“Nothing so hasty,” the Prefect said sourly. “It will only work with those who can translate directly from the SETI files, however.” He eyed her significantly. “Therefore, I cannot serve.”
Decades had passed, she knew, since this Prefect had worked with the cryofiles. Ruth had taken years to fathom the labyrinth of those data-forests – the sum of all transmissions received from the Galactic Complex, that host of innumerable societies that had, largely, flourished long before humanity was born. Within those multidimensional databases, Ruth spent her days. Multi-coded, the files were a vast, largely impenetrable resource. The grandest possible intellectual scrap heap. But it could yield priceless ore.
She said carefully, “Why not?” The pyramid of power in the Library of Intelligences was rigid:
Below those ranks were the Trainees, from which Ruth had just graduated after years of hard work. Below her were Seekers of Script, who assisted librarians. Below then, and the real strength of the Library, were Hounds. The venerable term came from the “data dogs” or “miners” of ancient times, before the Library had moved to Luna. At least she did not have to deal with the sexless Noughts on this issue.
“I do not handle texts directly, and this alien thinks that matters.” A perplexed twist of the Prefect’s mouth lasted only a second. “I chose…you.”
“I’m honored.”
“You may not feel that way in a moment,” he said dryly.
“In a moment?”
“It’s here now. To meet you.”
Her eyes widened, this time in alarm. Librarians seldom saw aliens. Usually it was in a minor role, to ask for help in deciphering or explaining interactions between SETI sites. Beacon History was not one of Ruth’s areas.
“But I haven’t prepared—“
“The people at State Relations went through a month of ritual greetings just to get it to talk. We’ve been through a day of ceremonials to even sit down. It believes in a ‘cusp interval’ when it can properly meet others. We learned this only an hour ago. It’s got to happen now.”
“How…do I dress?”
“Your uniform—“ He cast a gaze down it, nodded. Luckily she had just run it through the cleaner this morning. “—will mean little to it. I take it that these aliens’ manners resemble the ancient Japanese. It demands an hour minimum introduction, for any cultural interaction.”
“How do I—“
“State did the hard work. That’s what took a month. Plus training the computer aural translator. Its name, as rendered into something we can pronounce, and is acceptable to it, is Akralan.”
“Its star?”
“It will not reveal that, as yet. The astrobio types tell us it must come from a star similar to ours, a bit smaller mass. Its world has less surface water and more noble gases in the air.”
“What about its culture?”
“Akralan says it has come because we are humanoid, like itself. Their society saw pictures of us in one of our transmissions. Akralan says humanoids must stick together, in a way. As the newest humanoid species, we must come to know and respect certain set, ordered ways.”
Ruth had seen many formalized patterns of grammars, symbols and words in the SETI Library. Often they carried coded tricks to prevent unwelcome use. “Do these ceremonials have a purpose?”
The Prefect pursed his lips and momentary bewilderment flickered across his face. “It feels that non-humanoids cannot understand these social mannerisms. So the other shapes and sizes of aliens are somehow lesser. Why, it doesn’t say. That point alone took several days to extract, I gather.”
“Do you have any idea—“
A soft tone sounded on the Prefect’s desk. “The translator is ready.”
Ruth made herself stretch her own arm out toward the alien. It rotated its head in a slow circle.
What was that phrase the translator used? ‘Work Wife’ Was this the ritual to become a co-worker? The Prefect had thought so. But…wife? Impossibly, Akralan did a somersault, windmilling its arms. Then it plunged away from her, somehow picking up speed toward the distant clouds below.
So was it… showing off?
It’s playing with me.
She had no time to think. Her head snapped back. Pulses sounded through her—buffeting. She was moving faster than sound and shock waves raced along her, a thousand small hammers finding nooks to hurt.
Not relaxed any more. A warning clang jolted her ears.
Her thermal shedders were laboring, but she felt prickly heat seep into her skin. Breath was a labor. Another clang.
The drogue signal. About to deploy.
She turned to see if her backpack was clear and suddenly wrenched sideways.
Sky. Boots. Sky. Boots. She was tumbling. She forced her arms out the way Akralan had. Wind tore at her arms. They strained in their sockets.
If her drogue parachute popped out while she tumbled, the shrouds could tangle. The chute would not open right.
She forced her arms in the odd gestures Akralan had made. Wind howled around her. She opened her legs to get drag and that brought her around, facing down again. But she was at an angle, getting forced back into a rotation.
She windmilled her arms. That brought her right again, facing down. But she overshot. She reversed the windmill. Eased back into position, facing down.
Bang – the drogue chute peeled away and slammed her hard.
Air rushed from her lungs. She fought the huge hand trying to crush her chest and sucked in a little air. She was losing speed fast.
But the drogue was deployed right, pulling hard at her.
Below, all was blue-black.
An enormous cloud towered over the puffy white cumulus near it, stretching up from an anvil-shaped base to a massive head. And she was falling into it.
They were. She looked for Akralan. It was ahead of her now, drogue bright orange.
She closeupped the cloud base and saw lightning fork in quick raging stabs. Her inboards told her it was twice as high as Everest. Wispy ice clouds slipped by her. She looked toward her feet. She was white. Ice caked her now.
And here came the billowy head of the big cloud. Fronds of vapor enveloped her as she shot through layers of cloud decks, shocks slamming through her. Her teeth chattered. So much for thermal overload.
Her helmet had rims of ice crystals. But why she did not feel cold? Then she realized that the buffeting was resonating through her, playing her like a drum. Her teeth chattered in resonance with it.
The ice-white streamers around her thickened and darkness gathered in. Fat, dark boils below loomed and she plunged through them, into …night. It must be cold here, she thought, but she felt warm. The heat from the first, fast friction had protected her.
But…she felt queasy. In the dark she could feel herself begin to spin, arms trying to fly out. The parachute would get fouled if she went into a gyre.
But how to stop? She spread her arms, giving way to the centrifugal. Now she could navigate by the pressure against her, since that was down. She flexed her legs to steer and got slammed around by twisting winds. All in the dark.
Violent gusts rattled her. Gravity returned – which meant she was rising, punched upward by winds that fed the cloud core. Pang went her faceplate. Lesser hammer blows rang along her body. What?
In the dim glow she saw hailstones bouncing off her suit. Rocks of ice, some as big as her fist. They came at her from below, slamming up into her. But she still felt gravity, so she was rising toward the cloud summit. Some huge hurricane was hammering the hail upward.
A crisp, white burst of light seared her vision. She looked down a vast dark tunnel burrowing through the center of the cloud. A lightning bolt twisted across this tunnel, showing her feet apart, arms flapping. Whirling. Head over heels. Dark above. Tunnel below. Dark above again. Tunnel – then it snapped off, leaving her in complete black oblivion.
She looked at her helmet timer. 16.27 minutes elapsed.
It seemed like hours.
The Prefect stepped through into the translation room, but Ruth hesitated. Beyond that door was the first alien she would ever meet. She gulped, took a deep breath and followed.
Her first impression was of shadowy skin and eyes like rounded rectangles. Its nose was a single large protruding cone high on the forehead. It wore clothes of an amber hue and sat like a human, though considerably larger. The hands were four-fingered and multi-jointed in an odd way as the creature made rapid gestures, turned its head in elaborate arcs, and then sat absolutely still. It then could have passed as a large storefront dummy.
The Prefect gestured and she sat in a chair opposite the smooth–skinned being. She did not know what to do and looked at the translator, an aged woman. The translator held a flat device that converted acoustic signals, doing the hard work of bridging between languages utterly different. The woman explained that she had developed audio pickups that transduced human speech into its own sounds, but Akralan could not shape human words. She would aid in the halting exchange.
The next ten minutes passed slowly as it spoke, sounding like a bearing about to go. It made hand passes and some strange leg-thrusts from its molded chair. The translator responded in kind. Ruth gazed into the unreadable glittering black depths of its eyes – which swiveled to follow her. She realized that she was fidgeting and stilled herself. The alien’s eyes seemed to glaze.
With the translator Akralan used gestures, words sounding like a song sung by insects, then hand-clasps. The translator said at last, “We have performed the ceremony of greeting. Now it will follow its invocation of need.”
“Its… what?” Ruth found it hard to look away from the eyes.
“Since you will be working with it, there must be a firm introduction,” the translator explained carefully. “It seems to want to…take you as a collaborator.”
“To decipher SETI texts?”
“To…convey ‘necessary knowledge’ – that is the best way to phrase it.”
“To translate some of the holdings?”
“More, it implies. It refers to ‘ancient knowings beyond written’ – which may link through semiotics to the Maze.”
The Maze was a working name for the transport system that threaded the galaxy. Many SETI messages were scraps referring to it. Physicists inferred that the Maze might be an interlocking system of wormholes, and thus a way to move nearer to the civilizations that had sent the messages. But where was the nearest wormhole to Earth? Until they knew that, other knowledge was useless.
The alien made a long series of sounds like gravel sliding downhill. The translator worked the flat device and at last said, “We will observe the ‘reflections’.”
This meant minutes of silence. The alien stared straight at Ruth and made small gestures with its four-fingered hands. She had no idea what to do so sat still.
Silence was one of the ways to deal with aliens, she had been taught. This one said little, a useful weapon. It probably knew that this made talky humans edgy, as if to say, I have come a long way. Now it is up to you.
It occurred to her that staying silent herself might work as well. Use the same tricks. Akralan could never be quite sure that it is not being mocked. And mockery must surely be a universal. The SETI psychologists suspected that intelligence had to have humor as a release valve. Strange elements in the dense SETI messages seemed to be humor, in the sense that they posed odd congruences, or even outright ridicule – the essential elements in what humans thought was funny. But humor had a social use as well – mockery among them.
So she sat and stared straight back at it. Long moments ticked by. Behind her the Prefect did nothing. They were a frozen tableaux.
Then the alien seemed to bristle, the nostrils atop its head flaring crimson, as if taking affront.
“You have passed its inspection,” the translator said.
Ruth raised one eyebrow. The alien wrinkled its intricately lined face in a mimicking way. Then she ventured a smile. Akralan gave her a curve of its slit mouth, but turned down, not up. A deliberate mirroring? Time to take the initiative.
“What’s a ‘firm introduction’?”
“Not a ritual exchange, such as we do now, but a positive act.”
“What act?”
“It requires that to function with you – or any Librarian, though you seem closest in abilities to what it wants – there is a bonding ritual.”
“Ummm. What sort?”
“It wishes to make you its ‘Work Wife’ – a term in its association grammar.”
She blinked. “Wife?”
“This is social gender, not biology.”
”I…become this ‘work wife’ by doing…what?”
“Taking what it calls the Plunge. We know you have athletic abilitiy and –”
“This is some ritual?”
“Akralan says to know the Earth he must be ‘properly introduced’ – which implies he must enter it from space.”
She pondered the alien’s flat, unreadable gaze. Was it male or female? She had no clear way of judging. The eyes glinted as if in challenge. “And I—what? How do I introduce the Earth?
“By escorting Akralan.”
The cloud world flashed all around her, lit by tangles of lightning – thick, blue blades like liquid swords. Then they snapped off—and the thunder came.
She did not hear it. Instead she felt it, sounding like a deep note that her body hummed.
Winds poked and pried at her, whipping her arms around. She curled up; head toward what she thought was down – and found in the next blue-white lightning flash that she was looking up. Or thought she was.
A giant hand snatched her around. Her lungs wheezed out all they had. The hand had her by her back—and she then realized that her chute had opened. That settled the argument about which way was down.
She turned to check and lightning lit the parachute canvas. A beautiful domed cathedral over her. Almost enough to make her religious. Then the thunder hit her and she vibrated again. If there was a time to pray, this would be it.
Rain smeared her view. Clouds came rushing up at her. Sunlight broke through in slanting shafts that moisture diffused into halos. Cottony clouds glittered like mountains of spun sugar. The buffeting jerked her around and she felt dizzy with the speed. Will this never end? She plunged through laces of incandescence. The moisture gave rays of light a shimmering beauty and she felt it sweep away her mounting fear.
Then she shot through the brilliance. She turned to look down. The huge tunnel that was the cloud interior now ended in a rippled wall of dirty gray. Those must be rain-saturated clouds, she realized just as she plunged through it–
–into ordinary pattering rain.
Sheets of droplets wrapped around her. Thump – and a giant hand jerked her upward. The main chute popped out, twirling beyond her drogue.
Now she was the bob on a pendulum, swinging widely as gusts caressed her. Ordinary hot-white lightning flashed around her. Thunder boomed and she could hear it, a big door slamming somewhere.
A muddy brown smear told her there was land below. She came down toward a pine forest, looking for a clear spot. There—a bare stretch of rock. She recalled her drop training. Feet together, body bent at the waist, hands and elbows tight.
The rocky slope came at her fast. She hit, rolled. Her helmet cracked down.
Lie still she thought. Do nothing. It felt very good.
Her body ached at a thousand spots. Joints wailed. Rain pattered against her, a goodbye tapping.
She sat up. Nothing seemed to be broken but a lot of her wanted to complain. The parachute tugged at her and she groped for the release. It popped free. Ah! So good to be alive. Even though she could feel a hundred aches and bruises.
Something above– She turned to see Akralan swinging down. It landed effortlessly, remained erect.
Akralan abruptly broke into an odd dance, spinning and barking out sharp sounds like clashing gears. Its snout-nose was not red now.
She staggered over to it. It held out a hand, as if inviting her to dance with it. She did. It spun her around, tapped its large feet on the rock like a drumbeat. More ritual?
She felt like punching it in the chest. No, be the diplomat. Never mind that there are clear signs down below that you wet yourself.
Instead, she stabbed a finger at the audio recording the translator had made for her. Her prepared salute. To her ears it was like gravel churning in a blender. It meant Thus do I introduce you to my world. Now let us begin.
Akralan spread its arms and did a complicated two-step. By now she knew this meant Agreed. Begin.
A month later, her soreness was gone but not her smoldering emotions. The Plunge had changed her, Ruth knew, but not exactly how.
“What?” the Prefect demanded. “Akralan will only teach us rituals?”
Ruth shrugged. “That is all it’s delegated to do, apparently.”
“What good is that?”
“Akralan points out that without the protocols needed to pass through a wormhole mouth, the artificial systems that keep those gates open will not let us pass.”
“What does that mean—not let us pass?”
Ruth grimaced. “I don’t think we want to find out.”
“What are these rituals like?”
“Maneuvers in space, signals to send. Some tangled mathematical stuff I couldn’t follow. Think of it as an elaborate key.”
The Prefect returned his face to the familiar stony blank. “Akralan won’t give any hint of where the nearest wormhole mouth is?”
She eyed the Prefect, wondering if the man had any personal life. Or was it all about the Library? Better be the diplomat, then. “That may come, in time. It says it wants to ‘ken’ Earth. That’s an old word meaning to know in a profound way.”
The Prefect’s mouth twisted. “Some high-ranked people will be very irked.”
“Some low-ranked, too. But…” She paused, trying to express an intuition gained from many hours with Akralan. “I am gathering in some ways of thinking about this alien culture. They’re humanoid, but apparently didn’t develop along our lines.”
The Prefect leaned forward, his posture eager, but he kept the blank mask. “It told you some of their history?”
“They’re communal. Live in close quarters, apparently because their world is pretty hostile. So they’re very formal with each other, the way crowded cultures are on Earth – only much more so.”
“It told you this expressly?”
“I inferred from nuances in its speech. This is going to take time. Akralan doesn’t think the way we do, and it has a species history that began when we were small mammals staying out from underfoot.”
The Prefect’s tone turned sour. “So it gives us more ceremony, not substance.”
Come on, freezeface. But she said mildly, “It’s a first step.”
She was beginning to get the feel of this profession. At the very beginnings of the Alien Library, humanity found that it was coming in on an extended discourse, an ancient interstellar conversation. There were no handy notes or crib-sheet histories to guide them. Only slowly did the cyber-cryptographers fathom that most alien cultures were truly ancient, stable for longer than hominids had even been around.
Apparently many intelligent species had a brief technological phase, then relapsed. Most listened in or sent SETI messages for a century or two, then fell silent. Humanity was just beginning its trial period, then. They should not expect the Elders to take much notice of them, or lend much help.
Thanks to millennia of SETI exchanges, the Elders had grown far more complex than the sum of all human societies. This Byzantium among the stars was much stranger than anything humans had ever known.
She said carefully, “Akralan had made it very clear they are helping us out because we’re rubes. Less prosperous, wet behind the ears, younger, ignorant. And it’s right.”
The Prefect seldom reacted immediately to new information. Some computer behind his forehead had to grind away first.
A glaze came over his face as he thought and Ruth had a sudden image flash to mind. Ruth as Superwoman, bounding over vast obstacles Shrugging off pesky hindrances. Her trusty companion, Akralan, leading her into ever more dazzling feats. This connection to Akralan could be a career maker, played right.
But then a chill came into her, a foreboding. There’s something afoot here I don’t like. Librarian Ruth isn’t Superwoman. And shouldn’t be.
The Prefect picked up a datasheet and punched up a message.
“Akralan sent me a request, posed in formal language. It seems to want a companion while it ‘kens’ Earth.”
Ruth had not heard of this. She stayed silent.
The Prefect made a thin attempt at sounding upbeat. “This time Akralan points out that there is a way to ‘ascend’ as well. Apparently that would involve some rocket-assisted way to soar to the top of Everest.” He stopped and peered at her. “I assume you can exercise your same skills as before and—“
“Don’t finish that sentence.” She got up and stalked out. Which took a kind of courage Superwoman Ruth didn’t know.

Down the River Road — the Introduction

Published by Gregory Benford on August 21st, 2012

Science does not know its debt to imagination.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Back in southern Alabama in the 1940s, Down the River Road by Mabel O’Donnell was the title of my first grade reading book. It was the Peterson Company hardcover 1949 edition with illustrations by Florence and Margaret Hoopes. Alice and Jerry and Jip went on a trip with a donkey cart, and… I don’t remember any more plot, if there was much of one. But I remember the pictures. I remember being excited about the concept of reading, but bored to death by Jip & Co.

Evidently I stored the memory of the book’s smell and heft back in the locker of the hippocampus. When Marty Greenberg asked me, a hard science fiction writer, to contribute to After the King: Stories In Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, I recalled that time when the lush banks of moist rivers around Fairhope, Alabama were my fantasy lands.

Tolkien had written his antiquity-steeped fantasy in lands much like England. For me, heartland America as revealed by science seemed a natural ground. I recalled Arthur Clarke’s famous Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Back in the 1990s I toyed with this as a rule about tech: “Any technology indistinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” Arthur’s loud laugh at this, when I visited him in 1995, pleased me enormously.)

Would a work be fantasy, though, if I wrote from my larger experience as a scientist?

To me the scientists and engineers of the last few centuries have been the unheralded elite emerging from the culture that has driven modern times. These folk somehow get left out of the equation of contemporary literature. The great modernist innovators – Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Stein, Eliot — saw the novel and poetry principally as an area of technical and formal innovation. They all spoke of the cultures they knew—Paris, Dublin, Yoknapatawpha. Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha  as a fictional county inspired by Lafayette County, Mississippi and its county seat of Oxford, Mississippi. He often referred to it as “my apocryphal county.”

But they wrote about fantastic matters of the past, not the future. Science fiction is a form of writing but it’s also a way of looking at things – a mode of thought. It requires mental landscapes more demanding and inventive than modernism.

So, I thought, why not create a far future landscape of fantastic, sufficiently advanced technology? To those who live in that place, it’s natural, unremarkable, yet mystery sleeps beneath. Their advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to them–yes.

Yet a young writer would be a fool to follow such theory, I thought when I began writing this piece. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn mostly by error. Or at least I did, mostly—plus the authors named above, and Hemingway and Heinlein. I came from the backwoods, so I thought of a fantasy that just might be about a riverland derived from mysterious science indistinguishable from magic. A place that reeked atmosphere.

We remember smells more acutely than the other senses because we evolved from a tiny rodent scuttling in the underbrush, avoiding the dominant dinosaurs, living by smell rather than sight. Our big brains cantilevered on long spines evolved from that rat’s smeller, so we can’t ignore smells. We remember them, can be snapped back into our past by their fragrant power.

The South is a smelly place. Southern settings seem, in the mind’s eye, to have an almost automatic, fantastic glaze, with strong scents. We readily call up images of brooding purple ruins, green corpses, melancholy figures shrouding a dread secret that reeks of musty shadows. Edgar Allan Poe, the first great Southern writer, started it all–along with the detective story and, indeed, the short story itself. Reading him, you meet a lot of scents.

The South has played a strong role in American fantasy, but little in science fiction.

I came out of the South a striver. I moved from the succulent South to live and do physics in dry, crisp southern California. So when I think of fantasy, I see the South. California is science fiction territory.

Here’s a 1974 photo of me with my grandmother in the yard of her farm, a few hundred meters from the Fish River where my brother and I explored swampy reaches in search of imagined buried pirate gold.

My grandmother died soon after this photo, and this last visit with her stirs still in memory.


Southerners feel their difference from the beginning. Though I have written fiction about abstruse physics and the people who care about such abstractions, all quite urban delights, I have always been aware that I come from a far distant culture.

I grew up in the rural small towns of Robertsdale and Fairhope, across the bay from Mobile. From my birth as an identical twin in 1941 until my father took us to Japan in 1948, I lived a simple and probably idyllic life, amid a Huck Finn world of sluggish heat, muddy rivers, infinite pine forests, and abundant creatures. E. O. Wilson relates in his memoir Naturalist how the same land made him into a fervent biologist a decade before and only a dozen miles away from my home. Yet somehow, despite a lifelong fascination with the myriad complexities of the natural world, I became a physicist.

I also learned something of storytelling. My step-grandfather, universally called Mr. Fred, even by my grandmother, told tales beside a crackling fire in the tin-roofed house on stilts beside the Fish River. (The pictures in the story itself are from the Fish.) He smoked a fragrant pipe that blended in the air with the woodsmoke. I listened to the cadences and swerves of dense, Southern spinning, and found it marvelous.

Decades later I found a recording of Faulkner, one of my favorite authors, and heard my grandfather’s identical accent telling stories that seemed to flow from some unfathomed wellspring, and knew that I came from some roots that ran deep.

It was an idyllic time. My brother and I had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we wore no helmets. We rode in cars with no seat belts or air bags.

A ride in the back of a pick up truck on a warm day was great bouncy fun, not cause for parental alarm. Or even driving a tractor to clear away corn stalks, a great adventure at 9. We drank water from the garden hose and certainly not from a bottle. We ate real butter and drank soda pop with sugar in it, but stayed slim because we were always outside playing. There were no “play dates,” just play. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and nobody filed a lawsuit. We got BB guns for our birthdays and didn’t put out very many eyes at all. I even recall running through the house with scissors.

We were athletic. I tried out later for a basketball school team and didn’t make it. OK, not my sport. (Later, I learned to surf pretty well, and scuba.) We liked sports and had freedom, failure, success and responsibility; we learned.

As a boy I worked on farms, and remember both the pleasure

of physical labor and the clear idea that in the long run it might be better to work inside and sit down a bit, too. My relatives who stayed in farming got beaten down then fairly badly by age fifty, and not many lived long lives. (My grandfather died of lockjaw (!) before tetanus shots existed.) So I went first into engineering and then quickly realized I liked my physics pure and undiluted. Eventually I became a mathematical physicist, then went back to doing experiments and running labs—mostly because there’s nothing like hands-on work; labor, again. And experiment has the raw rub of reality. Nature bats last.

My brother and I quickly became Us against the pervasive Them of rural Alabama. Aware of a larger world out there, the narrow hardscrabble life did not appeal even to Huck and his buddy.

So now I dwell in a vastly different world. Here’s a photo from the 1980s of me on the left, the other sf writers arrayed in front of a Saturn V laid on its side in Houston: Fred Pohl, Jim Gunn, Brian Aldiss, Jack Williamson. All these sf writers write out of their own experience—all writers do—and yet we go a-roving into futures and places no one has ever seen. We imagine times determined by technology, often strange. It’s the trade.

So, considering how to use this background of mine, I went back to that reader, Down the River Road, stole the title entire, and wrote a story about a place that recalls the South …and yet it’s a place where time is an active flux, not a remorseless ticking reminder of our mortality.

This story is a blend of hard sf ideas and the fantastic. You can work out where these people live, and that it’s a tubular place where somehow space-time warps. Yet this place feels old: the rural setting, country mannerisms, odd technologies that recall our past.

I enjoyed writing this expedition into the territory of fantasy. Many readers have remarked on how this novella seems like both past and future. I think fantasy’s ability to convey familiar feelings and resonances, among quite different atmospheres, is much of its power. After the King is still in print; Tolkien stands the test of time, though his work is set in the distant past.

I’ve added photos to this new edition of the novella, and 600 new words. I wanted to convey the atmosphere of where my brother and I grew up—always a deeply felt place, lingering in the mind.

I hope this new form works for you.

Gregory Benford

August 2012


The book appears for now only in e-editions.






Published by Gregory Benford on August 21st, 2012

As science fiction came out of the pure robot and monster phase and started to do other things, it became a very efficient vehicle for both social satire and for investigation of the human character in a different way from the straightforward novel: humanity’s character considered as a single thing, rather than the character of individual beings reacting to each other. Of course many science fiction writers aren’t equipped to tackle these rather grand themes, but I think it might well happen. So in one way science fiction is more ambitious than the novel we’re used to, because these great abstractions can be discussed: immortality, how we feel about the future, what the future means to us, and how much even we’re at the mercy of what’s happened in the past. All these things it can do.

–Kingsley Amis, winter 1975

photo is of Martin and Kingsley Amis


Published by Gregory Benford on July 14th, 2012

I used the AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE list to joggle memory.

http://filmmakerstore.com/afi100.htm; for alternatives, see http://www.filmsite.org/villvoice.html

and retain their numbers for reference.

This is NOT in order of preference, just ones I watch again and again.

Many left out!

1. Citizen Kane – 1941

2. Casablanca – 1942

3. The Godfather – 1972

5. Lawrence of Arabia – 1962

9. Schindler’s List – 1993

12. Sunset Boulevard – 1950

14. Some Like it Hot – 1959

19. Chinatown – 1974

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey – 1968

23. The Maltese Falcon – 1941

26. Dr. Strangelove – 1964

27. Bonnie and Clyde – 1967

28. Apocalypse Now – 1979

30. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – 1948

33. High Noon – 1952

38. Double Indemnity – 1944

40. North by Northwest – 1959

41. West Side Story – 1961

42. Rear Window – 1954

43. King Kong – 1933

46. A Clockwork Orange – 1971

47. Taxi Driver – 1976

50. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – 1969

53. Amadeus – 1984

54. All Quiet on the Western Front – 1930

60. Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981

61. Vertigo – 1958

67. The Manchurian Candidate – 1962

71. Forrest Gump – 1994

84. Fargo – 1996

93. The Apartment – 1960

96. The Searchers – 1956


They don’t list, but I do:

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Blade Runner (1982)

The Apu Trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959)

The Big Sleep (1941)

Out of the Past (1947)

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Seven Samari


INTERVIEW at Lucky Bat, publisher

Published by Gregory Benford on July 3rd, 2012

1. What are you working on now? Books? Short stories? Any upcoming projects you want to let us know about?


I’m systematically getting my older books reverted from Harper Collins (done!), Bantam (now done!–Heart of the Comer is out), Ace (working!) etc. Then I have Lucky Bat reissue them in e-editions and sometimes Print on Demand, as with my 1992 novel Chiller, reissued in 2011. I often include a new introduction, making them true second editions.
Beyond that, I have a new novel coming Fall 2012 from Tor, co-written with Larry Niven, Bowl of Heaven. More novels to follow that, including the Bowl sequel, to be called Shipstar. Many of my books remain in hard editions (“p-books” I’ve heard them called; printed) like Timescape and continue to sell well. But I spent five years starting and running some biotech companies and did little writing. That blows you out of the stores. I had half a dozen paperbacks in Barnes and Noble in 2005; now there are few. Time to get back in, on new terms.
I always write a half dozen or so shorter works per year, usually commissioned, to stay in the game. In science fiction (sf) you can get new readers with your short fiction, the traditional path. It’s nice being included in Best Of Year collections—good advertising. To drive this further, Lucky Bat has brought out my 5th short story collection, Anomalies.

2. What about topics? You’ve broken ground in your novels about time/space and even about cryonics. What science are you tackling now?
Bowl of Heaven is about what Larry & I call a Big Smart Object. His Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object since it’s passively stable, as we are when we stand still. A Smart Object is dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. There’ve been several Big Dumb Object s in sf by John Varley, Bob Shaw, George Zebrowski and others.. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine. But why? Fun!
As well, Lucky Bat brings out further titles like my novel Cosm this year, which did well at Harper. They reverted my books, so now it’s my turn. Publishers just can’t get their backlist into e-formats fast enough to avoid having authors like me get them back. It’s a rought & ready era!

3. You’ve mentioned — and you’ve proven — that you’re intrigued by the new world of publishing. Why? What is the magnet for you?
Of all genres, sf should look to the future. The digital transition can liberate authors and readers as never before, with publishers playing not the single pipeline but one of several paths. Plus, digital carries the scent of permanence, liberating prose from matter so it can transcend time.
Want to be read in a century? Go digital. I have dozens of books and hundreds of stories that need moving to e-formats.

4. All but your book, Chiller, recently published by Lucky Bat Books after rights reverted to you, have been published by traditional publishers. How does that model differ for you from the experience of publishing through a house like Lucky Bat Books.
After 47 years publishing, I know enough to shape my own books – art, especially. So getting to commission new art, arrange formatting and not dealing with %$@#*! art directors is a gift. Where else in the arts does a creator get so little say in how his work gets presented?
(I had arranged for a jacket illustration of an anthology I coedited: a lovely 1948 Bonestell painting showing the US east coast from orbit…and an art director flipped it because he thought it looked better mirror reversed…for the jacket of Skylife, from Harcourt. So the coast was unrecognizable. Aaargh!)
Plus, publicity (what little remains) can be contracted out. Distribution through Amazon is potent, and one can arrange placement with Barnes & Noble, etc. Piecemeal publishing, distribution and advertising can be quite effective. Look at the newbie authors who’ve sold a million e-books! These are methods in their infancy, a brave new whirl.
5. Are you planning to be on the road or at any conventions this year where your readers can see you?
No plans as yet…last year I hit worldcon, World Fantasy Con, Condor & Loscon—plenty of fun. I’m Guest of Honor at VCon in Vancouver late Sept and I’ll be at Loscon the day after Thanksgiving. In October Larry & I will do a west coast book tour—Mysterious Galaxy in LA & San Diego, Books Inc in Palo Alto, Dark Carnival in Berkeley, Borderlands in San Francisco, University Bookstore in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland, maybe more.

6. As a professor of physics at the University of California Irvine, you’re conversing with students every day. Do they ever challenge the physics in your science fiction? Or make it a part of the classroom discussion?
I use sf examples especially in mechanics classes—is the ringworld stable, etc.. I’ve been a lifelong researcher, with hundreds of scientific papers published, and several books—so I truly care about communicating science to people.
A fun part of Physics Through SF, a course I taught at UC Irvine, is seeing where you should tweak the physics to make the story work better. Hal Clement called it “the game” and it’s mostly played these days at Analog. I posted a long piece about this on my blog, gregorybenford.com.

7. What lies ahead?
A whole new landscape in publishing. I suspect that within this decade fully half of all new books will appear in e-formats and stay available forever. An enormous backlist will reside there. Many editors will be as freelance as writers are now. (A fine senior editor I worked with many times has gone freelance already, http://betsymitchelleditorial.com/.)
This is more than an opportunity; it’s a revolution. Join it!


Published by Gregory Benford on June 24th, 2012




Many wonders are visible when flying over the Earth at night. A compilation of such visual spectacles was captured recently from the International Space Station (ISS) and set to rousing music. Passing below are white clouds, orange city lights, lightning flashes in thunderstorms, and dark blue seas.

On the horizon is the golden haze of Earth’s thin atmosphere, frequently decorated by dancing auroras as the video progresses. The green parts of auroras typically remain below the space station, but the station flies right through the red and purple auroral peaks. Solar panels of the ISS are seen around the frame edges. The ominous wave of approaching brightness at the end of each sequence is just the dawn of the sunlit half of Earth, a dawn that occurs every 90 minutes.

Scrolls Forever

Published by Gregory Benford on June 19th, 2012

scrolls forever!



Published by Gregory Benford on June 6th, 2012

RAY BRADBURY 1920-2012

In the 20th Century he was comparable to Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. But Bradbury, in the ’40s and ’50s, became the name brand. Now they all, the BACH group, are gone.

He came out of Grimms Fairy Tales and L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, the world’s fairs and Lon Chaney Sr., Buck Rogers and “Amazing Stories.”

Visiting a carnival at 12 brought him face to face with Mr. Electrico, a magician who awakened Bradbury to images of reincarnation and immortality. “He was a miracle of magic, seated at the electric chair, swathed in black velvet robes, his face burning like white phosphor, blue sparks hissing from his fingertips,” he recalled in interviews. “He pointed at me, touched me with his electric sword—my hair stood on end—and said, ‘Live forever.’ Transfixed, Bradbury returned day after day. “He took me down to the lake shore and talked his small philosophies and I talked my big ones,” Bradbury said. “He said we met before. ‘You were my best friend. You died in my arms in 1918, in France.‘ I knew something special had happened in my life. I stood by the carousel and wept.”

He was loud and boisterous and liked to do a W.C. Fields act and Hitler imitations. He would pull all sorts of pranks, as a science fiction fan in the 1930s and 1940s. And he wrote a short story every week, setting a deadline: he would quit writing if he couldn’t sell one in a year. He sold his 50th. We came that close to having no Bradbury in our literature.

It’s telling that we read Bradbury for his short stories. They are stylish glimpses at possibilities, meant for contemplation. The most important thing about writers is how they exist in our memories. Having read Bradbury is like having seen a striking glimpse out of a car window and then being whisked away.

Often reprinted in high school texts, he became a poet of the expanding world view of the 20th century. He coupled the American love of machines to the love of frontiers. Elton John’s hit “Rocket Man” is an homage to Bradbury’s Mars.

Bradbury chalked up his stories’ relevance and resonance to his dealing in metaphors. “All my stories are like the Greek and Roman myths, and the Egyptian myths, and the Old and New Testament…. If you write in metaphors, people can remember them…. I think that’s why I’m in the schools.”

Nostalgia is eternal for Americans. We are often displaced from our origins and carry anxious memories of that lost past. We fear losing our bearings. By writing of futures that echo our nostalgias, Bradbury reminds us of both what we were and of what we could yet be.

Like most creative people, he was still a child at heart. His stories tell us: Hold on to your childhood. You don’t get another one. In so many stories, he gave us his childhood.

So Mr. Electrico was right in a way. His work will live forever.


Published by Gregory Benford on May 10th, 2012

I met Philip K. Dick in 1964, and it struck me how funny he was. I had just read The Man in the High Castle, and expected a rather dour sort. He had a way of comically falling out of a chair. At dinner he smoked a cigar and ate spaghetti simultaneously.

When I came by to go to dinner in the 1960s, I would at times hear something like a cheap motorbike banging inside the house. It was Phil, hammering at an Olympia typewriter like a woodpecker on meth; with one letter change, he was indeed a wordpecker on meth. Once when I arrived he said, not looking up, “I can finish this novel tonight if I go straight through to dawn.” I pointed out that the speed he was on needed dilution at least, and took him to dinner. And he finished it the next morning, he said.

My being an identical twin fascinated him, as it did Heinlein. Phil thought he’d write a novel about twins, and I suppose in some way he did in some of the more confusing novels. He also asked me lots of questions about time and quantum mechanics, especially for background for Counter Clock World. He thought entropy was a great metaphor but I could never make sense of the eventual novel. In that time he was moving from wife Ann to wife Nancy, and remarked, “You’d guess that a guy who won the novel Hugo would do better with women.” I thought it a doubtful syllogism.

Then he moved to Orange County in 1972, still steamed up about an earlier break-in at his home. He imagined the FBI was responsible. I found he didn’t much like the aspects of the county that I found best, such as the beaches and ocean. He never visited my home perched high up with a view of the town and ocean in Laguna Beach. Only slowly did I realize that he was agoraphobic, so vistas and great weather mattered little. He liked churches, he said, and questioned me closely about my being an Episcopalian. He felt the gospels were powerful messages we should all study intently. He was writing an interminable Exegesis and consulted me on it, but I never read more than a few passages. Not my thing, unlike his novels and especially the short stories that snagged my attention in the 1950s.

As success came to him, he was generous to the poor. He told me in 1981 that he had made $180,000 that year and gave most of it to charities. Even though he lived pretty close to the street himself, he knew what it was like to be down, and tried to help people. The one person who would not have believed in the prominence of Philip Dick in our culture now was Phil Dick himself.

About that time I used some connections in the CIA to inquire with the FBI about Phil, and the break-in. Word came back that there was no Dick file at all. When I told him that he said they had probably destroyed it to “cover their trail.”

He did love music and spent a lot on his FM system. With Tim Powers he often listened to major symphonic works, and mentioned that he could not quite register the nuances from the left speaker. Later, Tim told me, he went to a doctor to check and found that he was losing his hearing in the left ear. “Thank God,” he said. “I was afraid it was in my speakers!”

Somehow that sums Phil up to me.

I found him hard to quite appreciate as he became more intent on the meaning of scripture, transcendental matters, and the Bishop Pike brand of Christianity. Often Phil had, shall we say, a continuity problem. He spoke of hearing a voice from the cosmic sky but what he heard from on high tended to vary often.

I was intent on running a plasma physics lab and so saw him infrequently, though I did continue to urge him to move and enjoy the pleasant aspects of the county, instead of his strip mall neighborhood. In spring 1982 I realized we hadn’t spoken for a year, so I called and made a date for dinner. He was jazzed about the rushes of Blade Runner he’d seen and wanted to talk about it.

Days later, I heard he had died. When Tim Powers called to tell me about the memorial service, I flipped open my appointment calendar and found that the day and time were precisely when we had scheduled to have dinner.

It was what we have come to think of as a Phil Dick moment.

TIMESCAPE reflections…now it’s an Android app

Published by Gregory Benford on May 3rd, 2012

“Englishmen were fish swimming in this sea of the past. For them it was a palpable presence, a living extension, commenting on events like a half-heard stage whisper. Americans regarded the past as a parenthesis within the running sentences of the present, an aside, something out of the flow….It seemed that in a muzzy sense the past was still here, that they were all connected, and that the perception of the future as a tangible thing lived in the present, as well.”
(pg. 208-09)