Cosm, Gregory Benford

Avon EOS, 1998, 374 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79052-1

Even though “Science” is fully half of science-fiction, its representation in most SF stories is simply appalling. One cannot count the number of cheap stories in which The Answers seem to be held by one clever fellow who can also whip up a universe-saving device in five minutes and still get the girl. (Watch INDEPENDENCE DAY again.  Discuss your disgust.)

Real-world science truly doesn’t work that way. Answers are found after messy, meticulous trial-and-error procedures that don’t result in flashes of insight as much as in slow theoretical elaboration. And that’s still in the lab, because outside the lab lies even more drudgery; endless paperwork to apply for research grants, constant academic or corporate social infighting, political pressures… The appalling state of today’s science is matched only by our disgusting lack of knowledge about it.

All of this must have crossed Gregory Benford’s mind as he sat down to write Cosm, his latest science-fiction novel. Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California, so he presumably knows what near-future hard science-fiction is all about.

At first glance, there’s not much excitement in Cosm‘s premise: Almost by accident, an ordinary scientist creates a shiny meter-wide sphere in a particle accelerator experiment that goes wrong. She keeps the sphere and starts studying it. No big pyrotechnic displays, no mind-blowing SF concepts.

And, for most of the book, that’s where things stay. The sphere proves to be an interesting phenomenon, but not one that has the inherent potential to arouse the jaded reader’s interest.

Most of the novel’s impact comes from other strengths, such as its insider’s glimpse into contemporary science. The political battles, dirty academic tricks and real-world concerns of most working scientists are faithfully described.

Second is the attention that Benford brings to his protagonist. Alicia Butterworth is, simply put, one of the most impressively realized characters in recent SF. She’s not a beauty queen (far from it), she’s not a terribly charming person (her dismal dating record proves it), she’s not supernaturally smart (part of her appeal is that she’s an average scientist) and she realistically suffers from the twin handicaps of being both black and female in a white male environment. Her struggles and triumphs are made more real by being solidly anchored in the real world.

The result is, without question, Benford’s best book. The prose is lively and compulsively readable, the pacing holds up, the supporting characters are well-defined, the book is peppered with great throwaway lines and as a result, the book nearly reads itself in less time than you’d think. Good scenes, believable dialogue, a few physics jokes and a lot of nifty personal insight: Cosm raises the bar for the rest of Hard-SF. Through exceptional writing, the appeal of the book goes well beyond SF territory, though fans of the genre will not feel any dumbing-down of the material.

There are still a few rough spots whenever it’s time to place all the events in a greater context, like some knee-jerk media-bashing, and simplistic fundamentalist overreaction. (Though this leads to a typical kidnapping scenario that, for once, plays as if a smart kidnapee was involved.) General-interest readers might quibble that the science stuff is overwhelming (sheesh; a few graphs and everyone screams bloody murder!) and that the pacing is dull. Nothing that we’re not led to expect, really.

But with Cosm, Gregory Benford turns out the novel we’ve been waiting to read from him: A purely hard-SF tale that’s at the same time written with zest and a whole lot of skill. Recommended reading.

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