An introduction to Gregory Benford

An Introduction to Gregory Benford
by Peter Nicholls

Greg Benford is the sort of man you can (and do) meet anywhere. I was not at all surprised in 1997 to run into him unexpectedly while he was holding forth on the deck of the Queen Mary. As he talked with typical animation, in my mind’s eye I saw the Greg Benford I had originally met almost a quarter of a century ago–I think it was 1976–and mentally superimposed the past image over the present one. Astonishingly, he had hardly changed at all from the youngish man I’d met while he was working in Cambridge, UK.

It’s true the greying beard is a rather pepper-and-salt affair now, but he hasn’t become overweight, and still looks youthful though he’s in his late fifties-born 30 January 1941–and still holds a glass of something alcoholic as he gestures, while he talks nineteen to the dozen. His conversation is knowledgeable, argumentative and good-humoured. He’s a good man to talk to (though he doesn’t suffer fools gladly), and a good friend of mine, though I suppose we’ve only got together twenty or so times in three decades. In appearance, he looks intellectual but tough. He looks as if he might have been a sportsman once, maybe a football player, but he probably wasn’t. (Footnote: Greg told me when he read the above that he gave up quarterbacking in Junior High, getting tired of being knocked down, but has suffered around ten broken bones from surfing, baseball etc.)

Most famously, of course, he has combined two complementary careers, academic physicist and science-fiction writer. (He must be the only writer in the world to have published both novels and scientific papers on the galactic centre: one of the novels is Furious Gulf, 1994, and one of the papers is “An Electrodynamic Model of the Galactic Center”, Astrophysical Journal, October 15th, 1988, pp 735-42.) But he was already active in science fiction long before either of these careers took off.

Benford has been a Californian for several decades now, but his childhood was in the Deep South, in Alabama, plus years spent in Japan and Germany because his army-officer father was posted there. Benford has a Texas connection too. An interview tells us “I have the weird distinction of having been an instigator of the first Con in Texas and the first Con in Germany.” The Texas con was the Southwestern Con, July 1958. The German convention was even earlier, WetzCon (for Wetzlar, Hesse) in 1956. Not bad going for a teenager.

Like so many other sf writers, Benford began life in the science-fiction world as a fan, and rather a notable one. He was, for example, co-founder in 1955 of the celebrated fanzine Void with his identical twin James, at the age of fourteen; subsequent co-editors included Ted White and Terry Carr. (Carr’s experience here stood him in good stead; he went on to win a 1959 Hugo for his later fanzine Fanac, co-edited with Ron Ellik, and later became a distinguished writer also, and editor of the Ace Specials.) By now Benford was moving westward, and he did his undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Oklahoma, graduating in 1963.

Professional writing came quite a bit later than fan writing. His first published story was “Stand-In”, 1965, written while he was a PhD student at the University of California, San Diego. It won second prize in an amateur writing contest held by the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but he wrote little more before 1969.

Much of his early work, and some later, was written in collaboration. These stories and novels included some written with his brother Jim, with his sister-in-law Hilary, and most importantly with Gordon Eklund. There were later novels in which he collaborated with William Rotsler, and subsequently with David Brin.

His earlier novels were usually based on stories previously published, sometimes by reworking three or four of them and putting them together in mosaic style. In another writer this could be laziness, or a mean-minded attempt to wring every possible last nickel from previously published work. With Greg, I think the motivation is quite different. He gets dissatisfied, he wants to work out the implications of ideas more rigorously and deeply. Like a terrier with a bone, he shakes an idea and tosses it about and buries it, then digs it up again to worry it still further. Or, as Greg put it another way in an interview, “Ideas come to me in a lapidary way, layering over the years.”

For example, his first novel was Deeper than the Darkness, published by Ace Books in 1970. It was based on a 1969 story, one of his earliest, and also called “Deeper than the Darkness”. When he looked back on the book-length version later on he was dissatisfied, thought it “dreadful”; it was “hastily written”. So he expanded and rewrote it into a more sophisticated version, The Stars in Shroud, 1978.

But I’ve just re-read the original novel, having remembered that it excited me at the time. Sure, there are infelicities, and the ending is ill-plotted and rushed, but it’s still pretty good. It’s obvious why I liked it: it came out in the middle of the rather phoney debate between “hard sf” on the one hand, and “New Wave sf” on the other, and with extraordinary dexterity it reconciles the warring factions. It’s about both inner and outer space. It sees value in and uses the soft sciences sociology and psychology, but it also includes tachyons, gravity waves, and some rather nifty orbital calculations. The story is indescribable and rather ugly–telling the effects of an alien “plague” weapon on a human race, scattered through the galaxy, whose dominant mode of living is a form of collectivism based on oriental philosophies. The plague takes the form of its victims suffering acute agoraphobia, and burrowing into shit-lined tunnels where they lie cocooned, straight from the collective into stinking isolation, and ultimately die. It is a memorably telling image.

Before leaving this novel, I should refer Australian readers to the following: “…my father a truly rare specimen: one of the last pure Americans, born of the descendants of the few who had survived the Riot War. That placed me far down in the caste lots, even below Australians.”

Deeper than the Darkness foreshadows Benford’s later work in many respects: a love of anarchic individualism which is interpreted by some as a version of right-wing Californian libertarianism (though I’m pretty sure Greg wouldn’t go along with that); a melding of psychological studies (linguistics, the nature of intelligence, the nature of sentience, the function of emotions) with hard physics (Benford’s real-world specialty is plasma studies, especially as they relate to astrophysics, but he has worked in other areas of astrophysics as well); an extraordinary breadth of theme. He works on a broader canvas than almost any of his hard sf colleagues and with more colours on his palette.

Benford became well known quite quickly. After a couple of previous award nominations, he quickly won a Nebula in 1974 for a fine novelette he wrote with Gordon Eklund, “If the Stars are Gods”. This was one of the four pieces that were woven together to make the collaborative novel of the same title, If the Stars are Gods (1977). This first-contact story tells of aliens in our solar system, who regard our Sun as a sentient being, and treat it as a god. It is one of the most interesting 1970s stories that use religious themes in sf. (It was around this stage of his career that I first met Greg, when he was a Visiting Professor at Cambridge University, in 1976.)

Benford won his second Nebula, this time for best novel, for the 1980 novel Timescape. It remains his best-known work, and has deservedly become a classic, but I think it has had an unfortunate side effect in somehow shadowing his subsequent career. Perhaps readers expected more of the same, which Greg was not really prepared to give them. Timescape is the definitive time-travel-through-tachyons story, and is set in the world of scientific research, a world that Greg of course knows intimately, and he makes vivid use of his insider knowledge. The plot involves a vital, panicky message sent by future scientists to present-day ones via tachyonic coding. The book was so powerful that one publishing house, Tor Books, named an entire sf line the Timescape line. Few novels become logos.

I had vaguely assumed that Benford had won Hugos as well as Nebulas, and it was only while researching this introduction that I found I was wrong. He has never won a Hugo in any category. Benford’s absence is arguably the major omission in the list of Hugo winners over the last three decades. Among his fellow hard sf writers who have won Hugos in the same period are Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, David Brin, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, Charles Sheffield, John Varley and Vernor Vinge. Naming no names, Benford surely writes as well as the best of these, and better than several of them. (Surprisingly few Hugo awards have gone to sf writers who use hard science, despite the mundane stereotype of the sf fan–the man or woman who votes for the Hugos–as typically a technonerd. This is, it occurs to me, a very significant datum.)

As it happens I recently re-read the classic works of many of the above writers including Benford (not Robinson and Vinge, but with the addition of James Blish from the USA, and Bob Shaw and Paul McAuley from the UK). I was researching hard sf, which I love, despite the reputation sf encyclopedia editors have for being New-Wave lit-loving aesthetes, who wouldn’t know a Lagrange Point from a Punctuation Point.

I have to say that the results, perhaps because I’m getting old, were disappointing. Only three of the writers seemed as good or better on re-reading, and few of their books managed to renew the original sense of wonder I’d had when I first encountered them. The writers that most successfully survived this cranky, subjective examination were Larry Niven (a veteran), Paul J. McAuley (a younger writer) and Gregory Benford (two years younger than me). Re-reading Benford, I kept finding neat nuances and implications that I’d somehow missed first time through. It was an exciting voyage through Benford’s weird but stimulating mind.

The Benford series I had just read again is the enormous Galactic Center series of six connected novels. It consists of, as a kind of prologue, In the Ocean of Night (1977), followed by the series proper: Across the Sea of Suns (1984), Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989), Furious Gulf (1994) and Sailing Bright Eternity (1995). It would take thousands of words to describe the cosmic sweep of these novels properly; they consist of a swirling sea of characters and ideas, bubbling with manic energy, serving as venue for a heady narrative of conflict between organic (mostly human) intelligences, and machine intelligences. But it goes a lot further than that. The nature of sentience and the nature of the universe are only two of the series’ ambitious themes. Benford must be the pre-eminent inventor of aliens working in sf today, and he really thinks them through. They do not just come from the standard alien template. Go and read the books. You may, like me, find them even better the second time.

This series makes utterly clear that to call Greg Benford a hard sf writer is only to tell half the story. For one thing, he has read a great deal, and a lot of what he writes has resonant allusions to other writers. (Notably to William Faulkner. I always enjoy Benford’s public controversies-there have been quite a few of them. But the Faulkner-homage scenario was the most enjoyable yet, with Greg receiving what looked like a knock-out uppercut from ace critic Gary Wolfe, only to bounce back off the canvas and bruise Wolfe with a series of well-judged left hooks.)

As he foreshadowed in Deeper than the Darkness, Benford has continued (particularly in the Galactic Center series) to balance outer space against inner space, biology against physics, history against information theory. If you think this sounds daunting, well, yes it is a bit. But it’s entertaining, too, every now and then to read books that rigorously exercise the mind, rather than feeding it the usual fast-food snacks. This quality of Greg’s writing, together with his sporadic willingness to take experimental risks with ordinary English-language prose, means that he has never been able to seduce what I call the Star Wars audience. But then, where would movies like Star Wars get their ideas from if it were not for the pioneer work of the Asimovs and Clarkes and Benfords and Bears? (No offence meant to movie fans here-I’m one myself.) No, Benford’s secret, and from a certain point of view his failure, is that he writes for grown-ups.

This is a brief introduction, not a critical essay, so I’ll not discuss all Greg’s books, though I must at least mention a few. There are two good collections of short stories, the first being In Alien Flesh (1986) and the second being Matter’s End (Bantam 1994, but the UK edition of 1996, Gollancz, has extra stories added.) Many stories, however, remain uncollected. There was much sometimes heated discussion of Benford’s authorized sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, entitled Beyond the Fall of Night (1991), and of his recent contribution to Asimov’s Foundation sequence, Foundation’s Fear (1997), when they appeared. I haven’t yet read his most recent novel, which is Cosm (1998), but it has had some great reviews.

It is a mystery to me how Greg finds the time for all this stuff. He does not generally seem stressed or tense when you meet him, and his relaxation can almost reach the point of leglessness, so to speak. He and I on one occasion in the 1980s got embarrassingly drunk, though this-for Greg at least-is atypical.

However, he obviously works very hard. In 1971 he became Assistant Professor at University of California, Irvine. He became Associate Professor there in 1973, and has held this position ever since. This research post is a real and demanding job, not just a sinecure like Asimov’s post at Boston University mainly was. He has also been an advisor both to NASA and to the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy. And he was rewarded for all this in 1995 with a Lord Foundation award, which is a seriously heavy distinction given to not many scientists.

He has published around 150 scientific papers, which is a lot, and in addition has produced many popular science articles for Amazing (1969-76, and some much later), Vertex (1973-75) and in the nineties for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. (However, quite a few of the more recent Benford columns–these have attitude, being simultaneously levelheaded and deliberately polemical–have been more about literary criticism than popular science.) It is perhaps odd, given this rich publishing history, that not until the end of 1998 did Benford’s first non-fiction book appear. It is Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia.

Greg Benford is arguably the premier hard sf writer of our time-though Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Paul J. McAuley and Kim Stanley Robinson in their different ways are up there too–and he is amusing and interesting in person, too. Also approachable and friendly. Don’t be frightened to talk to him. Chances are he will talk right back, and if he doesn’t, well, no damage has been done. He will not be the sort of guest of honour that spends most of the time lurking in his or her hotel room. I like him a lot, and I think you will too.