Published by Gregory Benford on June 21st, 2015

Big Universe 


In 2000 Russell Blackford and I wrote parallel essays on the issue of what great works of science fiction might last, and parallels to the greats of conventional literature. These appeared in Guy Lillian’s fanzine Challenger , #13 in Fall 2000, later reprinted in Steam Engine Time and Tirra Lirra. Here they are together, with no attempt to update the views of either author. As usual with my essays, I’m attempting to survey the landscape (to essay it, in the older sense) and inspire thinking, not to reach an answer to which all will subscribe.





Gregory Benford



When I began writing science fiction, as a graduate student in 1964, it was commonplace to regard the sf field as just entering its great phase. Of course there had been the Golden Age of 1939-45, and arguably a Silver Age of the early 1950s…but 1964 was rife with the hubbub of the early New Wave, remember, and promise seemed to brim everywhere.

An academic then referred to the field as “waiting for its Shakespeare”–that is, for a towering figure who could take the form to its’ heights, never to be equaled. The Bard came upon the Elizabethan stage and drama has never been the same since. Strikingly, he came early in the history of modern drama, though the Greeks had been staging great plays nearly two millennia before, and wrenched the form around until it accommodated the sensibilities of a quite different culture.

Other critics such as Brian Aldiss, particularly in his Billion Year Spree (later updated to Trillion), argued that H.G. Wells may have been the founder of modern sf and its Shakespeare all in one. Jules Verne came before, and in his attention to detail and plausibility may be said to be the founder of hard sf, but Verne mostly stuck to adventure stories, not heart-strumming dramas, “real novels.” Verne was not broad enough.

Wells indeed did lay down many of the great idea-novels of the genre (though it wasn’t a genre then), principally in his first decade: The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man. When has any writer had such a run, such a gusher of creation? Of course there were antecedents to many of his ideas. But he brought them to full, heartfelt dimension with true dramatic clout—and often, in novels that we would term novellas today, marvels of compression.

This he had in common with Shakespeare, who came to the young English stage and made it grow up.

But the New Wave advocates felt that truly adult sf would come only after the methods and crafts of mainstream literary styles were imported to bring to fruition sf’s themes. And Tom Disch did produce Camp Concentration, Joanna Russ And Chaos Died, Samuel Delany both Nova and Dahlgren, Roger Zelazny This Immortal, Harlan Ellison in groundbreaking short stories, while Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard had their peaks as well. Sadly, most of these works are long out of print, perhaps to be revived in a zombie-like way by on-demand publishing, which will cater to small audiences wishing to catch up on some of the fine works of the last half century.

But Shakespeare? None of these authors became the commanding figure Wm. S. was in his age. (Or may have been. There is curiously little documentation of Shakespeare the man—no letters, occasional pieces, not a single original manuscript. This has led some to suppose the Edward Devere in fact wrote the works, with the actor Shakespeare as a useful front. This leads to a wholly different reading of the plays and sonnets—an intriguing possibility, reminding us that even great figures can carry with them an artful ambiguity, to this day.)

How come? Perhaps because no one can command the range of science, fiction and worldly knowledge demanded of a great novelist now. That may be why we have no looming figures of Tolstoy’s scale. Science fiction, which takes on the largest issues confronting the human heart and head, demands much more than a conventional novelist needs to muster.

Maybe it’s impossible to become the Shakespeare of sf any longer?

Or…could we somehow have missed him? (Or her?!)

I’ve seen a heady rush sweep through the field as new, powerful writers arrived, at times greeted with hosannas that suggested the arrival of The Master. Robert A. Heinlein enjoyed that reception, and in many ways he was the American Wells, greatly extending the range of ideas and methods of a genre he entered fairly early.

There have been others who got a big reception. Alfred Bester, who had dash and verve and, alas, left quickly. Ursula LeGuin’s early Ace novels led to a remarkable string: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and on into some fine work. The first edition of the Nicholls & Clute SF Encyclopedia pronounced her the best living sf writer. But while her acceptance by the mainstream is unparalleled in sf by any other than Clarke, her highly successful career since has not been of Shakespearean dimension. Perhaps this will later seem just a change in fashion, for LeGuin wrote primarily “social sf” that resonated with the questioning of fundamentals going on in the advanced nations in the 1960s and 1970s. When society reinspects itself again, her repute may benefit. To me, The Dispossessed is the best consideration of the nature of utopia literature has yet produced–and it has a scientist as its central figure.

The second edition of the SF Encyclopedia made a case for Gene Wolfe as the greatest living sf author. Admittedly, their case seemed a bit half-hearted, and they made no such case for LeGuin (fickle critics!). I like his work, he may be our best stylist–but I doubt he’s our Bard, for reaching a large audience is surely a signature, and Gene is a cultivated taste.

Similarly, we saw Dan Simmons heralded by some as a writer who knew his science (not from experience; he got it from reading, just as the Bard apparently got his knowledge of, say, Italy) and had a flair for novels. He found a large audience, too. Greg Bear fit that description as well, and has produced fine work. Joe Haldeman we greeted in the mid-1970s in the backwash of the New Wave, and for a while held the record for the highest advance paid for an sf novel ($50,000–it seemed huge, then). Joe probably never thought of Shakespeare; Hemingway is his literary idol. William Gibson made a big splash in 1984 with a polished, insightful style that unhinged an aspect of techo-culture we had little glimpsed before. Further, he rode the wave created by the films Blade Runner (noir future) and Tron  (virtual reality dramas, jacking in). But cyberpunk was, like social sf, a passing taste–still powerful, but not a revolution in the sense that John Campbell’s first team wrought one in that distant first Golden Age.

So it seems no recent arrival is the Bard in disguise.

Consider a smaller question, then: who is the reigning figure, still alive, in modern sf? My money would be on two old favorites, Arthur Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Clarke gave us 2001 and Bradbury The Martian Chronicles, works that will live a very long while indeed. Bradbury says he’s not an sf writer, but he clearly came out of the magazines that termed themselves that.

But is either our Shakespeare? Somehow I doubt that either has the range to deserve the label. Of the two, Clarke comes closest, for my money. His amusing essays and Tales from the White Hart show his comic side, while many stories and novels display his grasp of the largest scales available to the modern intellect.

It is worth pondering who we will have to fill their shoes. Among living American sf writers,. Fred Pohl and Robert Silverberg probably have spanned the greatest range, summoned up deep emotions and plumbed the reaches of many ideas. But neither of these fine gentlemen would pretend to be a Shakespeare comparable to Wells.

And maybe there’s a reason for that.

Sf has become the preeminent genre, emerging from lowly pulp origins to rule the visual media. Alas, it is still a stepped-upon subsection of the lit’ry world, excluded from serious consideration, relegated to a box in the back at the New York Times Book Review.

But the written forms feed the visual ones, as many authors (like me) who have had their work purloined by screenwriters have woefully found. So we are influential, if not rich or famous. So here’s an audacious thought: maybe our Shakespeare was Stanley Kubrick.

After all, in a stunning series he gave us in a mere few years Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange—all near-future works of genius, derived from novels, two of them acknowledged as sf. They showed us worlds nobody had yet visited, and made his name. When Kubrick died, he was going to resume work on a film about artificial intelligence, on which he had already lavished years of script labor, working in turn with Brian Aldiss, Bob Shaw and Ian Watson. There was a flurry of speculation that Stephen Spielberg was going to take up the project, and work proceeds apace.

It’s startling to entertain the notion of Kubrick as our Shakespeare—but remember, the Bard primarily wrote for a visual medium, too.  And in keeping with our station in life, nobody in the general culture thinks of Kubrick as a science fiction person at all…

Still…there is a deeper problem here, rummaging around for a science fictional Shakespeare. We are the genre, the inventor of fandom itself, fanzines, big fan conventions, a fount of cultural innovation. But rather than see ourselves as a partitioned piece of literature, better to say that we are a continuing conversation.

No other genre refers back so far and so often to its Golden Age(s), citing works and comparing writers—just as this column has done. In weeding out the new but derivative, by holding it up to the light of other days, we confer Grand Master status only upon those who truly extend our mental frontiers, and relegate those who merely rearrange conceptual deck chairs to the lesser ranks (where, these days, they get stuck writing franchise fiction and work-for-hire media tie-ins, just to make ends meet.)

We inspect ideas anew in ways other genres do not. Where in mysteries, say, does one see a gang of young Turks write a three-nvoel sequence to reimagine a classic work? Yet that’s what I did with Greg Bear and David Brin, when we wrote the Second Foundation Trilogy. Isaac Asimov’s grand ideas rewarded revisiting, we thought, seen through the eyes of another generation. Of course, some Asimov fans thought this was overtly a bad idea. We expected that, along with the hard core of fans who do not want their view of the sacred texts challenged.  All this is part of the debate, too.

Most generally, our field comprises a way for the general culture to see itself in a fresh light.  Science particularly has always used sf to think about the implications of its own work. That’s why so many scientists have written sf (again, like me—a phenomenon you can study further in some essays at my website, available through

Rather than look upon our great works as resembling classical symphonies, to be played in grand halls to a passive audience, think of us as a jazz band—swinging down Basin Street in full voice, blaring our messages, running new riffs on old standards, fresh melodic lines, improvisation as the blood and rhythm of the enterprise itself. Our band’s sign might well read,


–because it’s what we truly do well.

And New Orleans never needed a Shakespeare.





Shakespeare, Science Fiction and all that Jazz

Russell Blackford


Gregory Benford writes that science fiction is an improvisational artform which, like jazz, does not need a towering figure such as Shakespeare. I agree that sf is highly improvisational in the way that he describes–and, to that extent, the analogy to jazz seems right. As for his “audacious thought” that Kubrick may be sf’s Shakespeare, well I see the point–my only query is whether it’s all that audacious. Before I reached this part of his essay, I was wondering if the towering works of the genre might not be prose narratives at all–novels and short stories–but certain films, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Those two thoughts, then, sf’s improvisational nature and the importance of cinema, are plausible and consistent with each other. For all that, I think that the tone of Benford’s article is a little too sanguine, a little complacent, about current sf and where the genre is heading.

Science fiction started out as a genre of prose fiction, but that soon changed in the age of radio and cinema. Narratives about rapid social change, the future, and the impact of science and technology can be told in any form that lends itself to narrative in general: epic recitation, live drama, prose fiction, comics, radio, cinema, television, or whatever the future has in store for us. And, while narrative is central to sf as an artform, sf-related ideas can be developed and debated in non-narrative ways, such as in lyric poetry and literary criticism. Science fiction motifs provide images for non-narrative visual art forms to an extent where sf illustrators often seem to be lionized more than the actual writers. At the same time, a parallel set of ideas infuses much modern philosophical writing.

Our culture provides vast scope for creative reactions to science, innovation and the future. Think of a great conversation spreading out from the science labs into every other place where we encounter thought and art, from technical philosophy to comic books and computer games. From the perspective of committed sf writers, fans and other dedicated sf readers, printed sf is at the center of this huge conversation. But at the same time, we have people “doing sf”–creating narratives about innovation and the future–who have little connection with the fannish or professional sf communities.

An interesting publishing phenomenon in my country, Australia, has been the recent success of a book called The Deep Field by a young literary writer, James Bradley. This book is set in the future, is largely about the psychological impact of radical life extension, and uses other sf-style technologies such as full sensory-immersion virtual reality. It has been embraced by the literary mainstream because of its dense, often poetic, language and its commitment to in-depth portrayal of character. It is not marketed or discussed as an sf novel. As it happens, Bradley is well-versed in sf and has written for the New York Review of Science Fiction, but he has no connection to fandom and no one here (except me) would think of him as in any way an sf writer. I’m sure we could recall other works such as this, part of the cultural conversation that I’ve referred to, but not pigeon-holed as sf.

Although this larger conversation is going on, what happens in the fannish and professional sf communities (as if these can be entirely separated) is an important part of it. It’s not surprising that sf narratives by the committed professional writers should feed off each other and improvise with ideas–yes, much like jazz. At the same time, it’s not surprising that a dominant entertainment medium such as the cinema should generate the most prominent individual narratives, as seen by society at large. It shouldn’t even be surprising if some of the most important sf works of all were movies, such as Kubrick’s 2001, rather than stories told in printed prose.

This sort of reflection makes Benford’s ideas seem very attractive, but it also exposes a problem. Consider how few towering works of sf ever came out of 20th century cinema. That leads me back to my point that Benford is a little too sanguine. For a start, it’s not obvious that improvisational artforms and those which produce towering figures, reaching or approaching the heights of Shakespeare, are mutually exclusive categories.

Of course, it’s difficult to compare artforms that emphasize real-time performances and those which leave behind compositions that can be preserved for posterity. Prior to modern forms of audio and visual recording, the work of actors and musical performers was essentially ephemeral, unlike that of playwrights or composers (though this, too, was often lost). A musical form emphasizing one-off improvisations might have towering geniuses, but their genius could not be preserved like the text (even if corrupt) of a play, or like an operatic score.

Some compositional artforms are, indeed, highly improvisational in the sense that Benford identifies. Science fiction is only one case in point. Although the emphasis is not on performances that might change every evening on a musician’s whim or electric light of inspiration, there is a developing body of work that reacts to previous work, sometimes by way of irony, satire, inversion, parody or mockery, or simply by “making it new” in keeping with the sensibilities and techniques of later times. This kind of self-reflection and improvisation is common to many artforms, not only jazz, with its radical emphasis on actual performance. Nor is it inconsistent with the presence of individual composers and works of genius.

Consider the tradition of English poetry. If we observe its development from, say, Milton to Yeats, we see a process of conversation and improvisation going on, similar to that which Benford identifies in the sf field. We see this in both the overall contours of the form’s history and in much of the detail. Pope and Dryden react against Milton in a particular way, Blake and Shelley in another (and the generations of Blake and Shelley react fiercely against Pope and Dryden!). As we work our way through Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Yeats–reaching towards the present day–we can see the constant reworking of themes, ideas, even lines, from poet to poet. This has not prevented some individual works appearing sublime. If sf has failed to produce figures at least approaching the towering genius of Shakespeare–its Miltons and Shelleys–the improvisational nature of the genre is not an adequate reason.

Of course, it may simply be too early to make judgments about this. After all, are we convinced that mainstream contemporary literature has produced writers on a level with Milton or the great Romantic poets? No, but I’d be more confident of the place of Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, or of prose fiction writers such as Salman Rushdie, when judgments are made in two hundred years’ time, than I would be about any current sf writer.

I do have concerns about the direction taken by mainstream literary writing during the 20th century, at the way some of the great Modernists–Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound–gave permission for those who followed to produce fragmented, obscure, essentially private works in a manner almost unprecedented in the literary traditions that I know. This has opened a gulf of incomprehension between much serious literature and the general reading public. However, sf suffers different problems that are associated with its very popularity.

Perhaps Joyce and the others stretched the traditional forms as far as they could go, at least in certain respects to do with the intensity of language and the impression of psychological depth. That may be one reason, quite aside from sheer technological change, why it is timely that cinema and television have taken over as the popular narrative media. However, the technological and social circumstances we live in have further impacts.

For a start, cinema and television are essentially collaborative artforms. Notwithstanding the mystique of the director as auteur, it is not possible to speak of individuals working in cinema as equivalent to Shakespeare. If a comparison is made between Shakespeare and Kubrick, I want to ask, Kubrick working with what scriptwriter? Kubrick working with what specific actors? Kubrick, even, with whose special effects? Perhaps sf’s Shakespeare is not Kubrick or any other individual, but just the free-floating world of modern cinema working at its best. In that case, we could look for a body of towering creative work coming out of Hollywood and other film capitals, without expecting one auteur to dominate.

However, what do we actually see? The dominant sf works in our culture are entertaining, in many ways dazzling, technical products, sometimes, as with the first two Stars Wars movies, given additional strength and resonance by their respectful treatment of mythic archetypes. But the most prominent sf is essentially a body of work aimed at children and teenagers. That, of course, is not a contemptible thing. The production of intelligent narrative for young people, in whatever medium, is an honorable and difficult occupation. All the same, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and Yeats would not have produced such monumental works of literature if they were writing essentially for kids.

We have reached a situation where the cultural dominance of sf is closely associated with the marketing of our most popular works of narrative art (not to mention music) for a young audience. The dominance of sf in cinema has been achieved overwhelmingly by works aimed for this market. Meanwhile, our culture’s truly sophisticated art, aimed at well-informed adults, has become inaccessible to the general population in a way that would have puzzled Shakespeare.

In that perspective, the dominance of sf in the form of Stars Wars movies and similar is not such a cause for rejoicing. I enjoy these movies and would defend them in some contexts, but they appeal mainly to the kid in me, not the adult. By contrast, Shakespeare appealed to all classes and degrees of education, and to adults across the full range of sophistication, in a way that popular narrative art seldom does today, and the most popular sf even more seldom. Perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey is an exception, a work that can genuinely be compared to a Shakespeare play, but how many sf movies made since then have appealed to the emotions and intellects of experienced, well-educated adults? By contrast, how many have been downright insulting to our emotions and our intelligence? Too many.

I hasten to interpolate that some very interesting and intelligent prose sf is being produced by such writers as Greg Egan, Greg Bear and Gregory Benford, by Melissa Scott, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, Ian Banks, Gene Wolfe, Jamil Nasir, William Gibson. . . . The list goes on and on; I could name many others. But these are not figures on a par with Shakespeare or Milton, Shelley or Yeats–or, if any of them are, it is not yet obvious. Sure, their work is sufficiently valuable to justify our advocacy of it to the literary mainstream. Again, some of the blockbuster movies (Blade Runner is a personal favorite) do have much to recommend them. And I’ve mentioned that some writers who essentially work outside the genre produce impressive one-off sf works that are worth hunting down.

But we’ve reached a situation where sophisticated audiences, mainstream writers, most literary critics and (I suspect) the Hollywood hacks who buy sf ideas and popularize the genre all view “science fiction” as essentially a lurid variety of children’s entertainment. This is not, as I once thought, a product of ignorance and prejudice; it is quite understandable. The genre has come a long way in its public prominence, but its image has not improved in the process. Prose sf is now dominated, in market terms, by media tie-ins that lack even the knowingness and high production values of the movies and television series on which they are based. If we expect sf to be a literature of ideas, a conversation about science, innovation and the future, we are justified in feeling disappointed. Science fiction may have become a dominant narrative genre but only at the price (all too often) of giving up its heart.


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