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.”