Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ 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 January 23rd, 2013

Earth My answer to the 2013 Edge Question:


         One iconic image expresses our existential condition: the pale blue dot. That photograph of Earth the Voyager 1 spacecraft took in 1990 from 6 billion kilometers away told us how small we are. What worries me is that dot may be all we ever have, all we can command, for the indefinite future. Humanity could become like rats stuck on the skin of our spherical world, which would look more and more like a trap.

         Imagine: we’ve had our burgeoning history here and used up many resources…so what happens when they run out? Valuable things like metals, rare earths, fertilizers and the like are already running low.        

         Voyager has been operating for 35 years, 4 months and 4 days as of today (9 January 2013)—a huge return on the taxpayers’ investment. It is the first probe to leave the solar system and is the farthest man-made object from Earth. Voyager is now exploring the boundary between our little solar system and interstellar space.

         It can instruct us still, about our more pressing problems, as Sagan pointed out: “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

         They fought over resources we could exhaust within the next century or two. Voyager’s perspective also suggests an answer: there’s a whole solar system out there. Sagan pondered that aspect, too: “There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet.”

         That is still true, but the vast solar system can help us. I worry that we will miss this opportunity.

         This century will doubtless see our population rise from its current 7 billion souls to 9 or 10 billion. Climate change will wrack economies and nations. The bulk of humanity has large economic ambitions that will strain our world to satisfy. With the USA imitating Europe in its evolution into an entitlement state, it will have less energy to maintain world order. Amid constant demands for more metals, energy, food and all the rest, it seems clear we can expect conflicts among those who would become “momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

         There are resources that can aid the bulk of humanity. With entrepreneurs now pulsing with energy, we have plausible horizons and solutions visible. SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), founded by former PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, now delivers cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from orbit on 8 December 2010, and Musk remarked on his larger agenda, the economic opening of space, “We need to figure out how to have the things we love, and not destroy the world.”

         The black expanses over our heads promise places where our industries can use resource extraction, zero-gravity manufacturing, better communications, perhaps even energy harvested in great solar farms and sent down to Earth.  Companies are already planning to do so–

Bigelow Aerospace (orbital hotels), Virgin Galactic (low Earth orbit tourism), Orbital Technologies (a commercial space station), and

Planetary Resource, whose goal is to develop a robotic asteroid mining industry.

         Barely visible now is an agenda we can carry out this century to avoid calamity, those rivers of blood, and anguished need. We know from history how to open new territory.

         Historically, coal and the railroad train enabled much of the industrial revolution. Both came from the underlying innovation of steam engines. Coal was the new wonder fuel, far better than wood though harder to extract, and it made continental scale economies possible. Synergistically, coal drove trains that in turn carried crops, crowds and much else.

         A similar synergy may operate to open the coming interplanetary economy, this time wedding nuclear rockets and robotics. These could operate together, robot teams carried by nuclear rockets to far places, and usually without humans, who would compromise efficiency. Mining and transport have enormously expanded the raw materials available to humanity, and the rocket/robot synergy could do so again.  As such fundamentals develop in space, other businesses can arise on this base, including robotic satellite repair/maintenance in high orbits, mining of helium 3 on the moon, and metal mining of asteroids. Finally, perhaps snagging comets for volatiles in the outer solar system will enable human habitats to emerge within hollowed-out asteroids, and on Mars and beyond.

         Nothing has slowed space development more than the high price of moving mass around the solar system. Using two stages to get into Low Earth Orbit may make substantial improvements, and beyond that the right answer may lie in nuclear rockets. These have been developed since the 1960s and could be improved still further. Lofting them into orbit “cold”—that is, before turning on the nuclear portion–may well erase the environmental issues. Fuel fluids can be flown up separately, for attachment to the actual rocket drive. Then the nuclear segment can heat the fuel to very high temperatures. Economically this seems the most promising way to develop interplanetary economics for the benefit of humanity.

         Such ideas have been tried out in the imaginative lab of science fiction, exploring how new technologies could work out in a future human context. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 visionary novel, 2312, portrays such a solar system economy. Another 2013 anthology, Starship Century, has more chapter and verse on this.

          Sagan spoke often of how the view from space gave us perspective on our place in the cosmos. That started with Apollo 8’s 1968 swing around our moon and its backward look at the Earth. Many felt, looking at those photos, that future exploration of space should focus on ways to protect Earth and to extend human habitation beyond it. Sagan had the idea of turning Voyager to look back at ourselves, and tried to tell us to take the larger perspective in his Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

         That first flowering into space set a tone we should embrace. In the end, history may resemble a zero-sum game ruled by resources. We can only win such a game by breaking out of its assumptions. A thousand years ago, societies were largely religious, and prayed to the skies for their salvation. We can seek our futures there now as well.


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.

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.,0,2788286.story
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 March 30th, 2012

My latest story set in the future SETI Library (#8, I think) is up to be read. It’s the 5th and last to appear of stories based on a striking Palencar painting (clearly modeled on the famous Weyth painting).

See how you like it:


Published by Gregory Benford on January 16th, 2012

Getting Started

Mustering the fantastic in the cause of the real, or the reverse, can be useful teaching strategies. Illuminating physical law through science fictional thought experiments can awaken students’ inventive, playful side. Physics constrains action in ways that call up further study of the underlying physical laws.

Both David Theison (U. of Maryland) and Gibor Basri (U.C. Berkeley) and I have focused physics/astronomy seminars on science examined through SF. The reverse works just as well. I have found the best approach is to begin by trying to talk about physics as a life. Alas, it’s hard to find images of the scientist in fiction that hold up. Conventional” fiction has C. P. Snow’s novel The Search, and in SF, Fred Hoyle’s novel The Black Cloud is heavily laced with science and also gives a picture of the way scientists think and work — the way it’s really done, as opposed to the lab-smock image of commercial television.

You can even use non-SF to make this point, as with The Double Helix by James Watson, with his solve-it-at-whatever-cost approach. That kind of bath of cold water right at the beginning is very useful to show students that science is not a monolith as it’s lived, or as it’s often described.

You may have to justify such approaches, or indeed the scientific worldview, and curiosity itself. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a Sherlock Holmes tale, touched on this. Dr. Watson is astonished to learn that his friend Holmes, who can infer so much from cat hairs or heel prints, does not know that the Earth moves around the sun. Holmes is ignorant of “the entire Copernican theory of the solar system.” Holmes counters that while cat hairs, heel prints, etc., affect his present life and livelihood, it makes absolutely no difference to him at all whether the Earth moves around the sun or the sun moves around the Earth. Therefore, he doesn’t have to know such facts, and what’s more, even though Dr. Watson has informed him of the truth of the matter, he intends to forget it as quickly as he can. This is utterly opposite from the hard SF culture Perhaps those not shocked by Holmes should not be in a physics class, or an SF one.


My own principal teaching difficulty lies in finding the right approach. A motley class — people who think it’s a gut course, engineers who want to argue with about Larry Niven, humanities majors who want to find out what LeGuin really meant, and so on—require special effort. Stories that focus on problems that sharpen intuition work best.

The Wrong Stuff


Jean Piaget’s ideas are useful here. Learn by doing, since people absorb much faster and better if they can manipulate, physically or mentally.
To approach scientific habits of mind, Tom Godwin’s endlessly controversial “The Cold Equations,” uses a set-piece problem story but with no solution. Instead, it displays society’s institutionalized delusions, set against the overwhelmingly, absolutely neutral point of the view of the universe. Scientists often assume this view unconsciously.

Students should begin with their natural impulse to propose answers, until the point dawns. Count on disagreement!


The next stage might be that of literary analysis, to see what makes the stories work. Engineering students particularly like discussing an author’s tricks and ingenuity and factual errors, and in a good discussion of this sort one part of the class can educate the other. Some notice that Larry Niven’s Ringworld, for example, is actually unstable, and won’t work the way it’s described.

That can kick off a discussion involving the basics of mechanics and of literary credibility. The same can be done with Poul Anderson stories about low-gravity planets; how does biology change? This shows how solved problems in a fictional matrix motivate students to learn physics a lot better than taking the canonical introductory textbook course. Integrating physics with biology stimulates the intuition. In Heinlein’s “The Menace from Earth,” people can fly in domes on the moon at ordinary atmospheric pressures, a startling application of straightforward mechanics.

Reading Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, reveals some clear, clever cheats. Notably, if you run a spaceship into a star you cannot simply transform to another reference frame, à la Einstein, and show that it’s the star that gets gobbled up instead of the spaceship. Mass seems to increase as a body approaches the speed of light; Anderson knew this, but finessed it by supposing that the star’s rest frame is the right one to see the problem, and the starship’s mass trumps the star’s. Not so; consider the viewpoint of the ship, and the star is even more (relativistically) massive. Students can use this to understand that a relativistic reference frame doesn’t mean that you can wipe out real physical effects.


It also leads to a discussion of the important general aesthetic question of how much you can cheat on the facts in fiction. There are few cheat-free stories, including my own, and playing the game of finding the error in a story seems to motivate a lot of students to engage in physics, who otherwise sit there and stare. Some students take malicious glee by nailing big-name writers on details like this. It’s an introduction to criticism, and to physics, too.

I highly recommend this and the other methods I’ve mentioned as ways of students to respond with the proper spirit to physics, and to science in general. SF story creation, bending things a little bit to make your story hold together, is the same way scientists create a new theory. The act of creating a new axiom in science, says Jacob Bronowski, is the same as creating a poem or a novel or a painting. The product may be different, but the act of creation is the same. (It even feels the same, to me.) SF can be used to get across this idea, which is startling to most literature students, and to most science students, too.


An example clarifies. As commonplace as tides are, for example, few understand them. They become deadly when considering flight near a compact mass, the key idea in Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star. “ Such stars pack a stellar mass into ten kilometers, and Niven’s entrepreneur hero zooms by within a few hundred kilometers. The steeper gravitational potential well of a compact star means that tidal stresses can be large over distances of meters. The hapless human must then understand nature in a new way to survive. The stress is proportional to the different distances his head and his feet are from the star. This may be the only case in fiction where the right answer to a plot problem is to curl up into the fetal position, lessening the tug at head and feet.

Niven knew this (I asked) and finessed his ending. When I taught this story at UC Irvine, I checked his work and found the fetus effect wasn’t big enough; the character gets shredded anyway. But the ideas animate the story and can educate. And some students may make the same calculation, giving them a sense of participation in a story quite unusual in the classroom.


Generating a plot problem through applying physics takes the reader out of a human-centered narrative and into the realm of imagination, where nature provides a worthy opponent—maybe the only one worth our time, as Hal Clement once remarked. (Indeed, in most of our species’ history nature was the obstacle, a view sf can recapture.) Such strategies can both teach science and reflect on the nature of narrative itself. Science fiction abounds in such examples, one of its charms.

The science doesn’t have to be right to be useful. In Jerome Bixby’s “The Holes Around Mars” (1954), explorers keep hearing odd whizzing noises and notice that the mountains have holes in them. Then a near-disaster reveals the awful truth—Mars has several moons at very low altitude, so they keep plowing through mountains. This is so implausible even the most benighted humanities major will begin to have doubts. What happens to the moon’s kinetic energy, after all? How come it keeps boring holes and never crashes into the planet? Asking questions like these leads to some highly motivated learning of physics. Any student who can’t see the hole in this thrilling idea hasn’t learned to think with a hint of a scientific attitude.

Similarly, in “The Big Bounce” by Walter Tevis, a ball rises higher on each bounce, a clear violation of the second law of thermodynamics. Such stories encourage students to use common sense first, then to see that careful scientific argument can illuminate the underlying logic, and to learn something about science’s style and content as well.

A far better classic story, with a more subtle, illuminating scientific error, is “The Light Of Other Days” by Bob Shaw. Suppose the speed of light through different media could be made very slow, leading to windows made of “slow glass.” This 1966 short story explores the human implications of a seemingly minor physical fact. A special glass slows light so much that it takes months to move a centimeter, that is, reducing its speed by at least 17 orders of magnitude. Then a viewer outside a house can see his wife and child, inside the house, happy in the days before they died. The story skillfully builds to an emotional conclusion, using this implication of the physics.

But slow glass would also be a very dangerous explosive. Sunlight deposits about a kilowatt of power per square meter at high noon, so light slowed down in glass would carry that power, accumulated over months or years and stacked into a thin pane. Simple calculations a student can do (energy stored=sunlight power multiplied by time duration) show that a window has far more energy stored in it than is in a hand grenade. Drop the windowpane, or break it with a rock…

Bob Shaw hadn’t thought of this (I asked him) but for me his image of a captured past, with it artfully played implication, trumps such technical cards—a good example of the play between scientific fact and literary utility.


Looking Large
Beyond small-scale science lie grand visions the genre uniquely makes possible.


Hal Clement’s landmark Mission of Gravity began this with its detailed descriptions of a high-gravity planet and its insectlike natives, meticulous and well argued. Rich in physics and chemistry, with a Clement essay (“Whirligig World”) on how he built up his ideas, this novel may mark the true beginning of hard SF as a recognized subgenre, though the term itself doesn’t seem to have come into use until the middle 1960s, perhaps in reaction to the New Wave literary movement. (Though the New Wave was important in opening the field to wider influences, its greatest effect may have been to make hard SF into a recognized opposite.) Clement’s bizarre but scientifically plausible world is a raw setting in which the protagonists struggle upward against great weight, a reflection of the sometimes grim but usually hopeful tone of hard SF.


Much of the charm of Frank Herbert’s hugely successful Dune, written a dozen years after Mission of Gravity, lies in its working out of the implications of life on a desert planet. Herbert used massive research to buttress his imagination, and the book compels us because the consequences of the rigorous environment, as the plot unveils them, seem logical and right.

This was the first major ecological work in the field. His world has no obvious source of the oxygen his characters breathe (most of Earth’s comes from sea plankton), but this does not damage the story.


Except for some super-strong materials to wire it all together, Larry Niven’s Ringworld mostly conforms to physics as we know it now. It follows a band of explorers who trek across an immense ring which circles a star, spinning to create centrifugal “gravity”. The ring is so immense it can harbor life across a surface many times larger than the area of the Earth. Making this all work is great fun, with ideas unveiled by plot turns at a smooth pace. The sheer size of everything overwhelms the reader, but the game is played straight and true, no cards up the sleeve. Fred Pohl’s Gateway, for example — a New Wave-influenced novel with futuristic psychotherapy and angst as a frame — uses stellar astronomy, scrupulously rendered.
Getting the voice right is essential. Fred Pohl’s “Day Million” is a frustrated rant, expressing the author’s despair at ever conveying to his reader how wondrously different the far future will be–yet it tries anyway, with compact expository lumps like grumpy professorial lectures. This is one of the voices of hard SF itself, trying to punch through humanist complacency about the supposed centrality of human perspectives and comforts. Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” also hammers relentlessly and melodramatically, invoking the constraints of gravity, orbital mechanics, and fuel levels—the conservation laws of physics.

These two stories talk across the rapid social evolution between Godwin’s era (1954) and Pohl’s (1966). Godwin uses the indifference of the universe to frame a morality tale in which a woman dies because her innocence does not matter to an indifferent universe. Pohl, though, doesn’t personify human insularity in a woman, but in the reader –and ends by directly addressing that reader, assumed to be a callow young man (first published in Rogue).

Perhaps the best SF short story ever written, it is a virtuoso performance, a story set in a future so distant and different that we can only glimpse it in mysterious reflections and intriguing images. It’s also an exercise in the application of an unconventional style to the solution of a science fiction problem. What’s so hard about it? The attitude is right, giving it the texture and feel of hard SF.
Both Arthur Clarke’s “Transit of Earth” and Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” profit from not attempting a pleasant finish, remorselessly sticking with the assumptions of the story. The impersonality of the universe ultimately stands for its authority. Then match the Godwin against James Patrick Kelly’s 1996 Hugo winner, “Think Like A Dinosaur.”

Smart Speculation
Students enjoy stretching their intellectual muscles, especially with speculations. Some ideas open wide windows.
The Singularity envisioned by Vernor Vinge can be a useful classroom device to fuel discussion and reading. Many recent stories deal with various human augmentations, from the angelic to the horrible. The Singularity describes the black hole in history, created when human intelligence can be digitized and integrated with technologies, taking some of us beyond the comprehensible envelope of current concepts. It challenges the very idea of progress this way, a how much can you take? dare.

When the speed and scope of our cognition gets wedded to the price-performance curve of microprocessors, our progress will double every eighteen months, and then every twelve months, and then every ten, and eventually, every five seconds.
No wonder that the Singularity occupies so much of the SF narrative now. Using Vinge’s novels can well illustrate this. Whether students respond best to science or to spirituality, you could hardly ask for a subject better tailored to technological speculation and drama.


Centering science raises questions about conventional literary methods, as well. Of course, more literary SF works have plenty of space for pretty sentences and deep character, especially since they don’t do much thinking about anything else. Science-centered SF has to contend with many demands in the same story.

There’s a larger reason to foreground science: our culture has uplifted much of humanity with technology, but needs to think about the ever-faster pace of change. One of SF’s aims is to bring along into the culture those who may well react against change, even if it proves beneficial though unsettling. Genomics, climate change, biotechs that bring techno-augmented bodies and electronically assisted brains, etc –all need realistic treatment in what-if? scenarios.

Just depicting today’s science won’t do that. Thinking forward is far tougher, compared with realistic present day stories.

Subject Index of Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy, quite extensive, with comments:

Gibor Basri’s Seminar at Berkeley:

“The Light Of Other Days” by Bob Shaw is available:

NO LIMITS: Developing Scientific Literacy Using Science Fiction, by Julie H. Czerneda, published by Trifolium Press
( Biologist and textbook author, she published a manual called No Limits which gives many hints about using science fiction in the classroom –
Innovative Technologies In Science Fiction A list of publications about the science in speculative fiction. Comprehensive.

http:/ / Documents a course at California State University teaching science through the process of World Building. Includes a guide to world-building and student responses to that challenge. David Brin’s Science Fiction That Teaches site

Writer-authored curricula by Greg Egan, using his own stories:
http://w – Documents Dr. Joan Slonczewski’s “Biology in Science Fiction”(Biology 103) course at Kenyon College. This page contains a list of recommended books, and the results of student projects. This can be a model for how to use physics similarly. addresses the needs of boys. Many reading lists, such as those of Accelerated Reader and California Reads, show an unmistakable and profound bias toward the interests and inclinations of girls. This web site tries to counter that, stressing physics.

“Close Encounters? Science and Science Fiction”, Robert Lambourne Volume 59, Issue 9, pp. 861-862 1991

Stanley Schmidt American Journal of Physics Vol. 41 (1973): 1052ff

“Teaching modern physics through science fiction”, Roger A. Freedman, W.A. Little. American Association of Physics Teachers ( ) and American Journal of Physics: Vol. 48, Issue 7, pp. 548-551 1980