Archive for the ‘Events and Signings’ Category

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 May 6th, 2013

Starship Century, edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford, back cover




The Starship Century Symposium is the inaugural event at the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego, Tuesday Wednesday, May 21–22, 2013 The program is located here:

The symposium celebrates the publication of the Benfords’ anthology, Starship Century. Jon Lomberg, the artist who collaborated extensively with Carl Sagan, has read the book and has this comment:

Starship Century is the definitive document of this moment in humanity’s long climb to the stars. Here you can find the physics, the astronomy, the engineering, and the vision that provides the surest guideposts to our future and destiny.

A number of luminaries will discuss a wide variety of starship–related topics derived from the book. The gathering features thinkers from a variety of disciplines including scientists, futurists, space advocates and science fiction writers. The program includes Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Robert Zubrin, Peter Schwartz, Geoffrey Landis, Ian Crawford, James Benford and John Cramer. Science fiction writers included are Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, Allen Steele, Joe Haldeman and David Brin. Other writers attending are Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and Vernor Vinge.

The book will be available for sale for the first time on Tuesday the 21st at a book signing immediately following the first day of the Symposium. Many of the authors in the anthology will be available for signing. Following the first day of the Symposium there will be a reception featuring an exhibition of Arthur C. Clarke artifacts in the Giesel Library of UCSD.

In addition to the speakers, there are panels. One, about the development of the Solar System, is ‘The Future of New Space’. Another is ‘Getting to the Target Stars,’ moderated by SETI celebrity Jill Tarter. The conclusion is a science fiction writers panel, ‘Envisioning the Starship Era,’ moderated by Gregory Benford and featuring Joe Haldeman, David Brin, Vernor Vinge and Jon Lomberg. At the conclusion of the Symposium there will be a book signing for other books of the authors present. There will also be a later book signing at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore a few miles from the University. It will feature Starship Century and the works of the other writers present.

The Symposium will be webcast and then archived. The webcast, which activates at the time of the event, is here:

The Benfords will donate the profits from sale of the book to interstellar research activities. They are currently working to establish a research committee that will award research contracts. The edition available at the symposium will be unique, a collectors item. The book will then go into general distribution in the summer. The Benfords recommend purchasing through a link that will soon appear on the Starship Century website:

This route is optimal because it maximizes the percentage profit, thus maximizing the money available for research. As we all know, research dollars have been greatly lacking in the interstellar area, which is one reason why the interstellar organizations such as Icarus Interstellar, Tau Zero and the Institute for Interstellar Studies are volunteer organizations. The Benfords are planning a second symposium to be held in London in the fall.


Published by Gregory Benford on October 20th, 2012


Half Moon Bay, CA

Bay Book Company–80-F N. Cabrillo Hwy 94019



San Francisco, CA

Borderlands–866 Valencia St. 94110



Seattle, WA

University Bookstore–4326 University Way 98105



Beaverton, OR

Powell’s–3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd. 97225




Published by Gregory Benford on October 15th, 2012

far bowlBOWL OF HEAVEN is out

My collaboration with Larry Niven hits the stores TUESDAY, OCT 16. It’s picked up great reviews by Locus, Analog, Library Journal, and we’ll be signing copies starting Tuesday, Oct 16:

San Diego, CA
Mysterious Galaxy–7051 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard 92111
Santa Monica, CA
Barnes & Noble store 2575–1201 3rd Street Promenade 90401
Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy–2810 Artesia Blvd. 90278
Long Beach, CA
SCIBA Trade Show Author Feast
Half Moon Bay, CA
Bay Book Company–80-F N. Cabrillo Hwy 94019
San Francisco, CA
Borderlands–866 Valencia St. 94110
Seattle, WA
University Bookstore–4326 University Way 98105
Beaverton, OR
Powell’s–3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd. 97225
Here are some thoughts on the general subgenre:

Big Smart Objects

Gregory Benford’s take—

In science fiction, a Big Dumb Object is any immense mysterious object that generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. They don’t have to be inert constructs, and perhaps the dumb aspect also expresses the sensation of being struck dumb by the scale of them. My favorite is the one I’m working on in a two-volume novel I’m writing with Larry Niven.
Larry said to me at a party, “Big dumb objects are so much easier. Collapsed civilizations are so much easier. Yeah, bring them up to speed.”
So we wrote Bowl of Heaven, first of two novels about a Big Smart Object. The Bowl has to be controlled, because it’s not neutrally stable. His Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object since it’s passively stable, as we are when we stand still. (Or the ringworld would be except for nudges that can make it fall into the sun. Those are fairly easy to catch in time. Larry put the stabilizers into the second Ringworld novel.)
A Smart Object is dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. We fall forward on one leg, then catch ourselves with the other. That takes a lot of fast signal processing and coordination. (We’re the only large animal without a tail that’s mastered this. Two legs are dangerous without a big brain.) There’ve been several Big Dumb Objects in sf, but as far as I know, no smart ones. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine.
Our Bowl is a shell several hundred millions of miles across, held to a star by gravity and some electrodynamic forces. The star produces a long jet of hot gas, which is magnetically confined so well it spears through a hole at the crown of the cup-shaped shell. This jet propels the entire system forward – literally, a star turned into the engine of a “ship” that is the shell, the Bowl. On the shell’s inner face, a sprawling civilization dwells. The novel’s structure resembles Larry’s Ringworld, based on the physics I worked out.
The virtue of any Big Object, whether Dumb or Smart, is energy and space. The collected solar energy is immense, and the living space lies beyond comprehension except in numerical terms. But…. this smart Bowl craft is also going somewhere, not just sitting around, waiting for visitors–and its builders live aboard. Where are they going, and why? That’s the fun of smart objects – they don’t just awe, they intrigue.
My grandfather used to say, as we headed out into the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimping run, A boat is just looking for a place to sink.
So heading out to design a new, shiny Big Smart Object, I say, An artificial world is just looking for a seam to pop.
You’re living meters or maybe just a kilometer away from a high vacuum that’s moving fast, because of the spin. That makes it easy to launch ships, since they have the rotational velocity with respect to the Bowl or Ringworld… but that also means high seam-popping stresses have to be compensated. Living creatures on the sunny side will want to tinker, try new things…
“Y’know Fred, I think I can fix this plumbing problem with just a drill-through right here. Uh—oops!”
The vacuum can suck you right through…and you’re moving off on a tangent at tens of kilometers a second. To live on a Big Smart Object, you’d better be pretty smart yourself.

Larry Niven’s take—
“The Enormous Big Thing” was my friend David Gerrold’s description of a plot line that flowered after the publication of Ringworld. Stories like Orbitsville and Rendezvous with Rama depend on the sense of wonder espoused by huge, ambitious endeavors. Ringworld wasn’t the first; there had been stories that built, and destroyed, whole universes. They had fallen out of favor.
And I wasn’t the first to notice that a fallen civilization is easier to describe than a working one. Your characters can sort through the artifacts without hindrance until they’ve built a picture of the whole vast structure. Conan the Barbarian, and countless barbarians to follow, found fallen civilizations everywhere. I took this route quite deliberately with Ringworld. I was young and untrained and I knew it.
A fully working civilization, doomed if they ever lose their grasp on their tools, is quite another thing. I wouldn’t have tried it alone. Jerry Pournelle and I have described working civilizations several times, in Footfall and Lucifer’s Hammer and The Burning City.
With Greg Benford I was willing to take a whack at a Dyson-level civilization.
Greg shaped the Bowl in its first design. It had a gaudy simplicity that grabbed me from the start. It was easy to work with: essentially a Ringworld with a lid, and a star for a motor. We got Don Davis involved in working some dynamite paintings.
Greg kept seeing implications. The Bowl’s history grew more and more elaborate. Ultimately I knew we’d need at least two volumes to cover everything we’d need to show.
Here’s the first, Bowl of Heaven.
We’re hard at work wrapping up story lines on the sequel, Shipstar.


Published by Gregory Benford on October 5th, 2011

The 100 Year Starship Symposium was much like a science fiction convention, with solid content and a zest seldom seen. Held Sept. 30-Oct 2 in Orlando, it struck a strong note among the hundreds of attendees. I found it to be enormous fun.

DARPA’s intention in sponsoring this was to spur research and select an organization that will sustain and develop interstellar ideas over the next century. More important, it strove to create a culture centered on human expansion into the solar system, and onward to the stars. A science fictional staple, yes—so it needed sf writers.

Brother Jim and I had invited Steven Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Geoffrey Landis, Robert Sawyer, Allen Steele, George Zebrowski, Joe Haldeman, Gerald Nordley, Charlie Stross and Vernor Vinge.  We writers gave two panels moderated by Gay Haldeman before the ~1000 person crowd. Jim ran the biggest part of the tech program, propulsion. It was fun to see tech types recapitulate sf ideas – worldships, spacewarps, long lived societies, wormholes, intricacies of biology and aliens. They’re putting numbers on ideas we embodied in stories. One talk titled “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?” called our assumptions onto the galactic stage, quite wittily.

DARPA will give out one grant to an entity with the ‘Communication of the Vision’ goal of furthering ideas that lead to interplanetary travel and a society that will support going to the stars within 100 years. Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams   said to me this was like an endorsement from on high, and the symposium may be remembered as the Woodstock of interstellar. John Cramer, who ran the warp drive session, said the same.

I tried to deal with the many talks running on six parallel programs, scurrying among the rooms—an impossible task. For example, Jim and I think the most likely first unmanned “ship” will be a beam driven sail that makes a sundiver fall to get a boost from maybe 1/100th of our orbital radius, then gets pushed by beamed laser or microwave beams to very high speeds. The physics of that we now understand; Jim and I worked on the basics in the early 2000s—stability, steering, high acceleration. We even lifted a carbon fiber sail against gravity at JPL. With the basic physics done, it’s merely engineering… but what fascinating prospects! The sail papers were all promising.

What about larger payloads? We’ve hit the engineering wall, going as far as we can with chemical propulsion systems. If we’re going to make it to Mars in any sort of reasonable timeframe or with healthy transit durations, nuclear is the obvious next step.

Indeed, if NASA doesn’t show the world it has a goal—which should be Mars, certainly–and will develop the means to go there, it will be deeply cut in the budget battles soon to come. The Webb space telescope, now projected to cost $9 billion (ten times the initial supposed cost), is the only good project they have on hand. If we put it into the L2 point at Earth’s shadow as planned, we’d better be able to service it, to get long term performance from such a huge expense. That’s hard and expensive to do with chemical rockets.

Nuclear thermal rockets are the sole economical way we have to reach such places, four times further away than the moon. The outlines of an emerging interplanetary transport system are clear. At the Symposium  Geoff Landis reported on the NASA Glenn nuclear thermal rocket program, the third generation of development (after the NERVA program of the 1960s-70s and Timberwind, a still classified program of the 1980s-90s). Stan Borowski of NASA Glenn projects a manned Mars expedition by 2033! That goal could inspire a new generation.

So NASA has a choice, I think—swing for the bleachers, or die. We may know within a year or two which the bureaucrats – who have over thirty years with the Station and Shuttle turned an exploratory agency into something like a postal route—will choose. I’d like to be optimistic.

Several NASA execs remarked to me that the big opportunity now, nuclear thermal rockets, has a lot of opposition from those in the agency who fear public outcry. We’re in the third generation of nuclear thermal rocket development, which already has lift/pound ratings four times that of a Saturn V. But fears of failure dominate Agency thinking. Indeed, the NASA figures I talked to automatically assumed that nuclear thermal rockets were off the table because of “public outcry.” So I said, “Ever done a study to back that up?” Well, no.

I believe the public isn’t so concerned. The 1990s protest against the Cassini mission, which carried a nuclear “battery” source of small power, was the most recent such dustup. But it was funded by a publicity-seeking self promoter, Michio Kaku, who made preposterous claims about the dangers. There was no general public opposition at all. The future has many enemies.

As Joe Haldeman put it, the symposium was “A good and strange time. All those seemingly normal people doing what we do.“ Yes. And we all had a grand time doing it.


69th World Science Fiction Convention – Renovation

Published by Gregory Benford on August 1st, 2011

I’ll be in Reno for Worldcon, and I’m bringing CHILLER with me.

This was first published in 1993 under a pen name – my publisher, Bantam, wanted me to start a new line of scientific suspense tales. They then fired my editor, which killed the idea, though the book sold very well and had foreign editions.

You’ll find a new introduction in the book, along with a few minor updates to the info. Very minor. Here are the first couple thoughts in the 2011 Intro:

CHILLER by Gregory Benford, 2011 editionINTRODUCTION 2011

This novel I wrote in the early 1990s. I now reissue it, with a few anachronisms cleaned up for this edition. Those I haven’t caught I hope will not disturb the narrative overly much.

Writing demands planning, yet for me the best part of fiction comes when you’re able to find something more than was in the plan. This is the charm of outsmarting yourself (not so hard in my case; my plans seldom survive contact with the keyboard). In the early 1990s it seemed time for a novel that looked at cryonics with a view of how it might play out in our time….

Cryonics was a fascination and an ethical conundrum in the early 1990s. It still is. What’s more, now you can read CHILLER in e-book format. Gotta admit: that’s cool.