Matter’s End, Gregory Benford

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 294 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56898-1

Gregory Benford’s novel-length fiction can be distinguished by two characteristics: For one thing, it’s usually packed with scientific details, lengthy explanations, a deep understanding and love of the scientific method. Through books like Cosm and Timescape, Benford has produced some quintessential science-fiction whose realism was only exceeded by masterful writing.

Which, alas brings us to a second distinguishing characteristic: About half of Benford’s novels are overlong borefests, whose few good ideas are drowned in pretentious writing, overlong plotting and a complete lack of interest. Exhibit A for the prosecution’s case is the “Galactic Center” series, which ably spreads a novel or two’s worth of interest over seven lifeless volumes. Exhibit B is The Stars in Shroud, an admittedly early novel which distinctly has no interest whatsoever.

Fortunately, Matter’s End is a short story collection, which effectively diminishes any length concern. The first surprise is to be found in the table of content, where 21 stories jostle to be included in 290-odd pages. Discounting the two longest stories, we’re left with 19 stories over less than two hundred pages, an average of less than a dozen pages per story.

The variety of the style exhibited by Benford is impressive. Beyond the usual past-tense-straight-narrative, there’s a sale pitch (“Freezeframe”), first-person narration (“Mozart on Morphine”), exam questions (“Calibrations and Exercises”), a mission report (“Side Effect”), tips and hints (“Time Guide”), a radio news transcript (“The bigger one”) and one stream-of-consciousness (?) thrown in for good measure (“Slices”).

The genre of the stories is usually science-fiction, though maybe not as hard as you may think. There’s a smattering of fantasy, some humoristical SF but mostly, some bread-and-butter SF not especially distinguished by hard scientific content. As a collection, it’s easy to get into and easy to continue reading.

There are a few duds, mind you. Both novelettes are overlong: if “Matter’s End” eventually comes into its own a few pages before the end, “Sleepstory” made me go “Is that it?” Given that this is a collection that spans nearly thirty years of Benford’s career, it’s almost natural that his earliest stories tend to be weaker. “Stand-in” seems particularly pointless, a fate shared with “Nobody lives on Burton Street” and “We could do worse”, though the last two are also stuck in the bad pessimistic late-sixties mindframe. Finally, “Shakers of the Earth” demonstrates an occupational hazard of being an SF writer; Once you’ve seen JURASSIC PARK, it’s hard to be wowed by a 1980 story featuring -gosh!- resurrected dinosaurs. But even Benford acknowledges this last one in his afterword.

Fortunately, the rest of the collection holds up very well. I can’t understand why “Calibrations and Exercises” hasn’t become an SF short story classic. “Freezeframe” and “Proselytes” exemplify Benford’s best witty and succinct style, by making a strong point and immediately ending the story. “Centigrade 233” is a good exploration of the social role of SF, though don’t think too hard about the title or you’ll end up guessing the end. Those who read science-fiction to find truth about science and scientists should be pleased by the title story and “Mozart on Morphine”. It’s always a pleasure to read material by a professional who knows what he’s doing.

In this afterword, Benford makes the point that for writers, short stories are fun. And if “fun” has not exactly been one of Benford’s dominant characteristic in his novels, he’s obviously on a looser leash here. The result is a decent anthology of short SF fiction, well worth the read for genre fans, even for those who find the author to be very uneven. So’s this collection, but at least it’s unevenness on a faster scale.

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