Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category


Published by Gregory Benford on January 5th, 2012


I recently reread THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF  by my old friend Thomas Disch (Free Press, 1998, $25). Tom is now gone, but his ideas seem fresh as ever about science fiction and where it’s gone.

Here are some thoughts on the book, which still bears consideration. This sadly sardonic survey of science fiction worries its subject from many angles: historical, literary, sociological. Science fiction (sf) is perhaps the defining genre of the twentieth century, its conquering armies still camped outside the Rome of the literary citadels.

It’s an old story. Throughout this century, conventional literature persistently avoided thinking about conceptually altered tomorrows, and retreated into a realist posture of fiction of ever-smaller compass. By foregrounding personal relations, the novel of character came–especially in a classic debate around World War I between Henry James and H.G. Wells–to claim the pinnacle of orthodox fiction. James won that argument, surrendering the future to the genre that would later increasingly set the terms of social debate.

Disch underlies his wryly witty observations with poet Delmore Schwartz’s resonant title from 1938, *In Dreams Begin Responsibilities*. This “pregnant truth” is his clarion call to the genre that once fascinated him but plainly calls to him less since the mid-1980s. Sf takes up Big Ideas, but does not always treat them well. This unfulfilled promise vexes Disch, and he rummages among the cranks, fakes and crazies that often camped near the Legions of the Future. He treats us to tours of mesmerism from the time of Poe, to UFOs and their exploiters (Whitley Strieber, a flagrant example), to the huge religion invented in an sf magazine, Scientology. These unseemly neighbors of the genre betray America’s great historical trouble: high dreams, ready gullibility. Some skepticism is quite in order, particularly in the New Age.

The persistence of cranks and fools in the ranks of sf is sobering. We’ll scarcely be invited to tea if we keep such companions. This blends with Disch’s class analysis of literature.

Still, “The difference between highbrow and low — between Eliot and Poe, between mainstream and scifi–is not one that can be mapped by the conventional criteria of criticism.” He supports this by showing that Poe is more a formalist than Eliot, and less given to overt lecturing and preachiness. Instead, “The essential difference is not one of aesthetics or of some subtler metaphysical nature, but of the two writers’ antithetical social and economic positions.” Poe was a popular, market-driven writer, a “magazinist,” while Eliot was supported by a high culture with subtle patronage.

Sf is best seen as the voice of a rising class that sprang from the burgeoning American masses, hopeful middle class technological types. Their very earnestness carried their arguments and visions into the souls of the one country most responsible for our visions of the future; sf is notably an American creation, since the great era of Wells.

Predictably, its grandiose dreams lead to its worse faults. Sf’s greatest vice is lecturing. In the face of such large ideas, many authors became the “School Teacher Absolute, a fate that would befall so many later sf writers–Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, Delany–that it must be considered an occupational hazard.” It can carry a writer away. Disch sees the later work of Philip K. Dick, particularly the important Valis, as “madness recollected in a state of borderline lucidity.”

Such faults go with the territory, but they do not dominate. The true strength of the genre lies in its power to convince by imagining. “A theory can be controverted; a myth persuades at gut level.”

We sf writers were often great makers of myth, some lifted from written sf and tarted up for media consumption  *Star Trek* is notorious for looting the more thoughtful work of writers for their striking effects, leaving behind most of the thought and subtlety. Of the show’s huge global audience, he observes, “few audiences like to be challenged,” for after all, “it is traditionally the prelude to a duel, not to a half-hour of light entertainment. Any artist’s first order of business is not to challenge but to entice.”

He views this most persistent of any TV show from a fashion angle: actors in pajamas. Their starship looks much like an office from the inside, with lookalike uniforms: “the same parables of success-through-team effort that can be found on such later workplace-centered sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Designing Women.”

Trek was thus the prophet of the  politically correct multicultural future just ahead of us, with workplace equality conspicuously displayed. Disch wrings much humor from this insight, yet surely the crucial nature of both Star Trek and Star Wars lies in their invocation of family. The strangeness of outer space futures had before been so daunting  for audiences that typically it is the backdrop of horror (the Alien series, etc.).

Star Trek’s insight lay in the promise of going to the stars together, with well defined stereotypes who could supply the emotional frame for the potentially jarring truths of these distant places.  That is why the cultures they meet proved so boring: “Blandness and repetition can be comforting, and comfort is a major deseratum in bedtime stories.” Alas, the genre set out to do more than rock us to sleep.

The market now mirrors his withering analysis. Despite his assertion that “three or four slots on the best-seller lists are occupied by SF titles” in fact their occupants are fantasy tomes and Michael Crichton clones, not actual sf at all. Only one true sf novel I can recall from the 1990s made the lists for long, Arthur Clarke’s 3001, a media-driven sequel to a sequel to a sequel. Instead, fantasy reigns supreme.

Indeed, Disch believes that once space travel, sf’s grand metaphor, proved to mean long voyages to inhospitable places, the genre reverted to fantasy-like motifs.  There is truth in this, both in the rise of genre fantasy in books (now plagued with a numbing sameness and endless trilogies) and in the Joseph Campbell (savant of the mythic archetype theory of storytelling, as used by George Lucas in Star Wars) over John W. Campbell (tough-minded editor of Astounding magazine, the font of sf’s Golden Age, yet also the crucible of Scientology and crank ideas like the infamous Dean Drive).

This retreat from the observable fact–that the moon in indeed a harsh mistress–to Disch signals the end of sf’s best days. Though he scorns the Heinlein-Pournelle wing of hard sf (“Space is like Texas, only larger.”) he confesses a fondness for that seminal work of physical exploration, Hal Clement’s Heavy Planet.

Certainly, “hardness” in the sense of scrupulous concern for the facts and methods of science remains for many the core of the field, and its always hopeful promise. Hardness has been appropriated by some for political hard-nosed analysis, often with a libertarian bias, sometimes even for a conservative one — a seeming contradiction, for a “literature of change.”

Clement’s seminal world-building took us to far exotica, to meet the strange face to face. Indeed, aliens are the most pointed sf motif.     “If God can’t be coerced into breaking his silence, at least he can send emissaries,” a neat compression of science’s failure to reveal the holy, and sf’s literary attempt to find it metaphorically in the alien. Aliens are only passingly interesting to see; what one wants to do is talk to them, sense the strangeness of another mind.

Yet this is not the focus of the movies and TV, which have turned sf’s aliens into horror shows or neat parables. “Screenwriters do not have the luxury that novelists enjoy of taking the time to explain things, to pose riddles and work them out, to think. Such bemusements can be the glory of sf (as of the deductive mystery, another genre poorly served by film)” and we see it seldom in the torrent of special effects circuses pouring from our screens.

In the late 1990s we have entered an era when special effects can show us just about anything, sometimes at surprisingly little cost. This could liberate sf in the arena by which it is increasingly judged, the visual.

I believe this to be the great challenge to the genre: to use its insights and methods to reach the great potential audience with more than simple spectacle. The western made such a transition in the 1950s, producing its highest works (High Noon, The Searchers, Shane) before running out of conceptual gas.

Written sf may have lesser prospects. Media tie-in work fills a (thankfully) separate section of the sf division in the larger book stores. In the rising tide of media spinoff novels and “sharecropping” of imaginative territories pioneered by early greats, Disch seen the genre’s probable fate: “more of the same and more of the sameness.”

Need this be so? I find the quantity of fine written sf has never been higher, counter-balancing the media tie-in clones. This goes little noticed in the windy passageways of the literary castles, for the division of that Wells-James debate persists. There is a curious mismatch between the reviewing media and the reading public. One would expect an efficient market to shape book reviewing to the great strengths of contemporary America: genres, from the hardboiled detective to cutting-edge sf to wispy, traditional fantasy.

In the end, Disch seems saddened because the promise of the New Wave, just breaking when he entered the field in the 1960s, hissed away into the sands of time. But the legacy of his generation is deeper, raising the net in the genre’s perpetual tennis match between conventional literature’s subtle, stylish stamina versus sf’s blunt, intellectual energies. True, Disch’s fellow marchers have largely fallen silent, but the advance of hard sf after them used weaponry they had devised. From Clement’s beginning, hard sf has fashioned a whole armament of methods, some of which mainstream mavens like Tom Clancy, and savvy insiders like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, have built rich provinces of their own. Neal Stephenson’s cultural insights and technoriffs too have found a huge audience.

Genres are best seen as constrained conversations, and sf is the leader and innovator in this. Constraint is essential, defining the rules and assumptions open to an author.  If hard sf occupies the center of science fiction, that is probably because hardness gives the firmest boundary.

Genres are also like immense discussions, with ideas developed, traded, and variations spun down through time. Players ring changes on each other–a steppin’-out jazz band, not a solo concert in a plush auditorium. Contrast “serious” fiction–more accurately described, I believe, as merely self-consciously solemn–which proceeds from canonical classics that supposedly stand outside of time, deserving awe, looming great and intact by themselves.

Disch seems to sense the central draw of sf, but because he has been so isolated from it for so long, his expedition never reaches the core. Genre pleasures are many, but the quality of shared values within an on-going discussion may be the most powerful, enlisting lifelong devotion in its fans. In contrast to the Grand Canon view, genre reading satisfactions are a striking facet of modern democratic (“pop”) culture.

Disch does deplore the recent razoring of literature by critics–the tribes of structuralists, post-modernists, deconstructionists. To many sf writers, “post-modern” is simply a signature of exhaustion. Its typical apparatus–self-reference, heavy dollops of obligatory irony, self-conscious use of older genre devices, pastiche and parody–betrays lack of invention, of the crucial coin of sf, imagination. Some deconstructionists have attacked science itself as mere rhetoric, not an ordering of nature, seeking to reduce it to the status of the ultimately arbitrary humanities. Most sf types find this attack on empiricism a worn old song with new lyrics, quite retro.

At the core of sf lies the experience of science. This makes the genre finally hostile to such fashions in criticism, for it values its empirical ground. Deconstructionism’s stress on a contradictory or self-contained internal differences in texts, rather than their link to reality, often merely leads to literature seen as empty word games.

Sf novels give us worlds which are not to be taken as metaphors, but as real. We are asked to participate in wrenchingly strange events, not merely watch them for clues to what they’re really talking about. Sf pursues a “realism of the future” and so does not take its surrealism neat, unlike much avant-garde work which is easily confused with it. Thes followers of James have yet to fathom this. The Mars and stars and digital deserts of our best novels are, finally, to be taken as real, as if to say: life isn’t like this, it is this.

The best journeys can go to fresh places, not merely return us to ourselves.  Despite Disch’s sad eulogy for the genre’s past, which he considers its high point, I suspect there are great trips yet to be taken.




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.



Published by Gregory Benford on September 18th, 2011

I envisioned computer viruses and wrote the first one, in 1969—but failed to see that they would become widespread.  Then, decades later, came Stuxnet.


Technologies don’t always evolve as we’d like. I learned this in 1969, and failed to catch the train I’d predicted would soon leave.

Further, I failed to see the levels of distrust that would arise in computer culture from malware generally. Certainly I did not think that seeds of mistrust could be blown by the winds of national rivalry through an internet that infiltrated every aspect of our lives. But then, it was 1968… ages ago.

At the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory I used ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Administration) to send brief messages to colleagues in other labs, running over the big, central computers we all worshipped then. ARPANet’s emails had a pernicious problem: “bad code” that arose when researchers included (maybe accidentally) pieces of programming that threw things awry. Mostly I sent technical discussions to those at other labs. I worked on theoretical physics: solid state theory, plasma confinement for the fusion program, and some weapons work.

One day as I worked on a computation using the main computer, an idea struck: I could do so intentionally, making a program that deliberately copied itself. The biological analogy was obvious; evolution would favor such code, especially if it was designed to use clever methods of hiding itself and using others’ energy (computing time) to further its own genetic ends.

So… I wrote some simple code and sent it along in my next transmission on ARPANet. Just a few lines in Fortran told the computer to attach these lines to programs being transmitted to a certain terminal. Soon the code popped up in other programs, and started propagating. By the next day it was in a lot of otherwise unrelated code, and I called a halt to matters by sending a message alerting people to the offending lines.

Then I wrote a memo and made a point with the mavens of the Main Computer: this could be done with considerably more malevolent motivations. Viruses could move. Their reply: “Why would anyone do it, though?”

I recalled the Dylan song: The pump don’t work, ‘cause the vandals took the handles…

I thought it inevitable that such ideas work themselves out in the larger world. I wrote a story, “The Scarred Man” to trace this out, choosing to think commercially: could someone make a buck out of this? I devised a “virus” that could be cured with a program called VACCINE. The story appeared in the May, 1970 issue of Venture magazine and mercifully dropped from sight.

I avoided “credit” for this idea for a long time, but gradually realized that it was inevitable, in fact fairly obvious. In the early 1970s it surfaced again at Livermore when a self-replicating program named Creeper infected ARPANET. It just printed on a user’s video screen, “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” Users quickly wrote the first antivirus program, Reaper, to erase Creeper. Various people reinvented this idea  into the 1980s,  when a virus named Elk Cloner infected early Apple computers. That got fixed quickly, but Microsoft software proved more vulnerable, and in 1986 a virus named Brain started booting up with the disk operating system, spread through floppy disks and stimulated the antivirus industry I had anticipated in 1970.

It is some solace, I suppose, that last year’s #2 seller software in virus protection was a neat little program named Vaccine. The basic idea came into different currency at the hands of the renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins, who invented the term “memes” to describe cultural notions that catch on and propagate through human cultural mechanisms. Ranging from pop songs you can’t get out of your head all the way up to the Catholic Church, memes express how cultural evolution can occur so quickly, as old memes give way to voracious new ones.

There was some money to be made from this virus idea, if remorselessly pursued, even back in the early 1970s. I thought about these, though my heart was not in it. Computer viruses are antisocial behavior I did not want to encourage.

Nowadays there are nasty scrub-everything viruses of robust ability and myriad malware variations: Trojan horses, chameleons (acts friendly, turns nasty), software bombs (self-detonating agents, destroying without cloning themselves), logic bombs (go off given specific cues), time bombs (keyed by clock time), replicators (“rabbits” clone until they fill all memory), worms (traveling through network computer systems, laying eggs). Some companies in the anti-viral business claim over 100 million dollars lost each year in the just USA due to viruses.

Viruses were not a legacy I wanted to claim. Inevitably somebody was going to invent computer viruses; the idea requires only a simple biological analogy. Once it escaped into the general culture, there was no way back. I didn’t want to make my life about that. The manufacturers of spray-paint cans probably feel the same way…

For example, our cities will get smart. They will be able to track us with cameras or with microwaves that read chips in our phones, computers or even embedded beneath our skin. The first commercial use of this will be to feed advertising to us. We’ll inevitably live in an arms race against intrusive eyes, much as we guard against computer viruses now.

Stuxnet, the software virus that invaded Iran’s nuclear facilities, apparently is the first virus that disrupts industrial processes. It mutates on a schedule to avoid erasure, interrogates computers it invades, and sends back data to its inventors. Stuxnet can reprogram the PLCs and hide its changes. This smart cyber-weapon has a worm’s ability to reprogram external programmable logic controllers, making it a refined malware, aimed at critical infrastructure. Commands in Stuxnet code increase the frequency of rotors in centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant so they fly apart. Yet much Stuxnet code is unremarkable, standard stuff without advanced cloaking techniques.

Still, this is a wholly new thing—smart viruses with a grudge. These are evolving, self-aware, self-educating, craftily doing their mission. Expect more to come. Countries hostile to the United States may launch malware attacks against U.S. facilities, using Stuxnet-like code to take down national power grids or other critical infrastructure.

Though seldom remarked upon, USA policy traditionally has been to lead in technology, while selling the last generation tech to others. Thus we can defeat our prior inventions, and sometimes we even deliberately installed defects we could exploit later.

Stuxnet looks like a kluge with inventive parts. It does not hide its payload well or cover its tracks. It will not take great effort to greatly improve such methods (say, with virtual machine-based obfuscation, novel techniques for anti-debugging, etc), whatever their targets. Once major players use such techniques in nation-state rivalries, surely these will leak into commerce, where the stakes are immense for all of us. If Stux-type, untraceable malware becomes a weapon of commerce, our increasingly global commerce will take on a nasty edge.

If living in space becomes common, such systems will demand levels of maintenance and control seldom used on Earth. The International Space Station, for example, spends most crew time keeping the place running. These can be corrupted with malware.

So can many systems to come, as our environment becomes “smart” and interacts with us. Increasing interconnections of all systems will make smart sabotage a compelling temptation. So will malware that elicits data from your life, or corrupts systems you already have, in hopes you’ll replace them.

Now think beyond these first stages. What secondary changes emerge from those? Seeds of mistrust and suspicion can travel far.

That’s the world we’ll live in, with fresh problems we can attack if we’ve thought them through.

How  should you prepare and respond? You can’t possibly anticipate all outcomes. The time to think about this is now, before the future arrives like an angry freight train.