Tag Archives: Gregory Benford

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.

The Martian Race, Gregory Benford

Warner Aspect, 1999, 340 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-52633-9

The nineties have been an excellent decade as far as Mars and Science-Fiction have been concerned. SF writers returned to the Red Planet en masse, virtually re-inventing our SFictional view of the planet in light of NASA’s latest discoveries about it.

The crowning Mars work of the decade, of course, goes to Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterful Mars trilogy, which set the tone for a series of scientifically accurate novels perhaps more concerned with writing future history than overblown SF. A refreshing chance after Burroughs’ fantasy Mars.

Interestingly enough, even though there was a first Mars boom in the early nineties, (Bova’s Mars, Williamson’s Beachhead, Anderson’s Climbing Olympus, etc…) the Pathfinder expedition of 1997 (as well as the flap about Martian “fossils” in 1996) rekindled interest in the fourth rock from the sun. As Hollywood re-discovered Mars on its own (with MISSION TO MARS, RED PLANET, at least one TV movie and persistent rumors of a James Cameron film project), written SF went back to Mars another time: Bova’s Return to Mars, Baxter’s Voyage, Hartman’s Mars Underground, Robinson’s The Martians all went back, sometime literally, to the red planet for one more adventure.

Now Gregory Benford packs up his rockets and also blasts off to Mars, in an adventure that suffers from a few problem but manages to provide a satisfying read.

The setup innovates somewhat: Instead of the government directly financing a martian expedition, a series of mishaps convince the government to do business differently: They offer a prize of thirty billion dollars to whoever can get to Mars, perform some exploration and return safely. The novel opens as one expedition financed by a billionaire comes to a close. Of course, disaster strikes, a second expedition pops up, a pair of significant discoveries is made and money threatens to run out.

The novel begins with a chronologically fractured narrative, which isn’t as successful as a straight timeline would have been. (An approach more similar to Robert J. Sawyer’s usual middle-of-novel-scene-as-prologue might have been more successful than the attempt to pass of the flashback exposition interleaved in the main story.) But as the context is straightened out and the stakes rise, the novel gets steadily more interesting.

Of course, it helps that Benford has learned how to write clearly. His first novels (even the much-lauded Timescape) were embarrassments of pretentious prose masquerading as depth. Though he always had the capacity to do it (His mainstream thriller, Artifact, dates from 1985) it is only in the last few books (Cosm, most notably) that he’s shown a willingness to stick with an uncluttered, transparent, elegant prose.

The Martian Race is ultimately a pretty good -though not exceptional- novel of hard-SF. Though the idea-density is low for experienced readers of the genre, they are well-developed and the novel can survive quite easily on its increasingly engrossing narrative. Before long, the title begins to acquire a double meaning that is eventually proven right. Not much suspense, but it doesn’t really matter.

Though I doubt that Benford’s predictions will be realized -all his wishful anti-government thinking aside-, The Martian Race is another brick in the pro-Mars SF wall. It holds up well to Kim Stanley Robinson’s standard-setting trilogy and represents a good choice for almost any SF enthusiast. Now, if only Mars movies could be as good as Mars books…

The Galactic Center Series, Gregory Benford

Various, 1978-1995, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

In the Ocean of Night: Quantum, 1978, 295 pages
Across the Sea of Suns: Bantam, 1984, 352 pages
Great Sky River
: Bantam, 1987, 340 pages
Tides of Light
: Bantam, 1989, 362 pages
Furious Gulf
: Bantam, 1994, 341 pages
Sailing Bright Eternity
: Bantam, 1995, 445 pages

Faced with the prospect of a six-book SF series, any sane reader can reasonably ask whether the results will be worth the required time and money. After all, it’s not as if one frequently hear complaints about books that are too short or stories that are too exciting.

More serious doubts are raised while considering that the Galactic Center series was written between 1978 and 1995, a period during which SF changed considerably and readers’ expectation adjusted accordingly. Even worse, Gregory Benford never enjoyed a reputation as a very accessible author, with his graduate-level literary style presenting postgraduate physics. Would the series suffer from disillusions of literary grandeur, outdated SF assumptions, difficult science or terminal boredom? To put it succinctly, it the Galactic Center series worth it?

This reviewer, donning his “Consumer Report” costume, doesn’t think so, but doesn’t expect readers to be satisfied with such an curt answer. Let’s examine the series and find out what makes it tick incorrectly.

In the Ocean of Night is a fix-up novel of stories published during the seventies. It opens with one of the most commonplace scenarios in turn-of-century SF; astronauts deflecting an asteroid headed for Earth. Things get less conventional after the asteroid ultimately reveals to be of artificial origin. In the Ocean of Night quickly becomes a prime example of what everyone will recognize as “seventies SF”, filled with ecological hysteria, marriage-à-trois, undigested literary devices and half-hearted attempts to combine mysticism with hard science. As a basic read, it has lost considerable interest and almost all of its freshness. There are good bits here and there, mostly in the protagonist’s communication with the unknown, but otherwise it’s not a novel that will set your mind of fire. Oh, and there’s a sasquatch in there. Not that he ever reappears later in the series.

Across the Sea of Sun is a direct sequel to In the Ocean of Night, starring the same protagonist -Nigel Wamsley- in events happening shortly after the first novel. Even though some threads are comfortably forgotten (G’Bye, possessed Alexandria), there isn’t much of a transition between the first and second volumes. Across the Sea of Sun is simultaneously more entertaining and more annoying than its predecessor, an unfortunate mixture of unwieldy literary devices used too freely, and a few late-minute twists that really kick the story in high gear. It’s supposed to be a rather good hard-SFish tale of space exploration, but there is a lot of fat in these 352 pages and readers will have to be patient in order to get to the entertaining epilogue. The shape of the series’ theme is gradually revealed. Again, Benford shows signs of staying stuck in the seventies when his protagonist gets enmeshed in yet another marriage-à-trois, though this one ends up featuring a transsexual instead of a possessed automaton. Hey, whatever gets you off, Nigel.

The third volume, Great Sky River, is a major, major let down. It happens sometime, someplace with people who speak a barely understandable dialect of English. These people are nomads, forced to flee and fight against marauding robots in a world dominated by mechs. We’ve all seen MAD MAX (or TERMINATOR 2, or…) and the initial setup is familiar, if intensely boring. The storyline follows the usual post-apocalyptic template, with the expected inconsistent enemies and hoards of hidden techno-goodies. This should have been a zippy tome, but it gets bogged down in useless trivia once again. Furthermore, only attentive (or imaginative) readers will be able to connect any part of this novel with the previous two volumes of the series.

At least Tides of Light takes Great Sky River‘s protagonist, Killeen, off his hellhole of a planet, only to fall on yet another hellhole of a planet also dominated by mechs. The showcase scene of the book is a rather intriguing descent through a planet’s core, smothered with fascinating but lengthy details and -we guess- backed up by pages of intricate calculations. Alas, the rest of the novel drags on and on without the benefit of an interesting gimmick. There’s an interesting twist at the end, unfortunately diminished by its predictability. There are passages from an alien point of view; these can safely be skimmed. The novel ends as it began; aboard a spaceship heading somewhere, giving the impression that this book really wasn’t worth much.

With Furious Gulf, the series *finally* moves in some kind of gear, though some will argue that it’s in reverse. Killeen and crew finally arrive somewhere important, but the readers shouldn’t get overconfident, because what follows is more than a hundred pages of various tripping through alternate universes. It makes even less sense than you can imagine. All this traipsizing around only serves to annoy and infuriate the few remaining readers, who by that time (and some fifty-odd dollars poorer) would be justified in demanding a few answers. Fortunately, the plotlines of the first two books finally intersect with the rest of the series a few scant pages before the end of Furious Gulf, with a reunion that won’t truly surprise most readers.

If you’ve come this far, you might as well read the last volume. Fortunately, Sailing Bright Eternity provides some good hard answers early on, which takes off the unbearable tediousness of some three hundred more pages of seemingly aimless wanderings through time and space in alternate dimensions. While there are some arresting images in the process, there is also a whole lot of tediousness. Benford goes everywhere, but ends up nowhere, and after so much investments, one has cause to wonder if that type of stuff isn’t too late and far too inconsequential. There is a conclusion of sort, though nothing that will truly knock your socks off. If ever you want to read only the essentials, simply turn to the concluding Timeline, which succinctly resumes in 4 pages all the events of the series. It’s pretty much everything you need to know.

After this grand odyssey through more than two thousand pages, and the entirety of space, time and other universes, the final result is less than underwhelming. Benford seems to be writing in loops, most of them bringing us back to the very same point than twenty, fifty, three hundred pages previously. The effect is frustrating.

And yet, there is a lot of good stuff in the series. At first, it smoothly departs from “normality” in an interesting future (though the second/third book break destroys this comfort). At last, it presents a vast battle with new interesting opponents and imaginative skirmishes. But in the middle… the series has som
e serious structural problems. From totally unjustifiable breaks in action to lengthy over-padded segments to the maddening loops mentioned earlier, the Galactic Center series bring new meaning to the word “frustration”. The problems aren’t limited to the structure, as Benford’s writing also varies considerably in terms of clarity, going from intentionally opaque tripe to fast-moving thriller prose in a blink.

All of which could be forgivable, even quirky in a snappy three-hundred-pages book. But stretched out over six volumes… that’s overstaying its welcome. Just face it; for this amount of money you could buy six other books at random, and they’d end up, on average, being a far better buy than the Galactic Center series.

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.

Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, Gregory Benford

Bard Avon, 1999, 225 pages, C$26.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97537-8

We human critters have a few deficiencies, and one of them is certainly our lack of capacity for long-term planning. Try as we might, our day-to-day combat through life almost invariably relates to the next meal, the next paycheck, the next project, the next summer vacations.

The problem is not as much with human individuals, but with the realization that no one else is making long-term planning either. Organized groups usually think too much in terms of upcoming elections, end-quarter results or continued sources of funding to be concerned about long-term perspectives. This is not exactly a bad thing (given the rate of technological and social change, most plans will crumble at long range anyway) but it can certainly become a problem in a few situations.

Deep Time, by noted scientist and SF author Gregory Benford, takes a look at a few concerns that will require more than our usual attention span. In the process, he raises some fundamental issues about the environment, technical progress, civilization lifespan and how even long-term science is conducted by short-term humans. The book is divided in four parts:

The first segment begins as Benford is asked to be part of a study team, mandated by the American Congress, to study ways of ensuring that nuclear waste sites will remain undisturbed for more than the 10,000 years required for their degradation to harmless levels. Putting “Dangerous stuff; keep out!” signs obviously won’t do, especially when we consider that 10,000 years is lengthier than the span of recorded human history. Benford’s team had to consider such cheery subjects as complete civilizational collapse, language drift, evolving digging technologies, relic hunters, etc… The team ended up proposing massive, eerie sculptural features, multiple-language messages with iconographic support and a host of other neat features. This is by far the most fascinating piece of the book.

The second quarter concerns the efforts of a group of scientists to compose an “ultimate” message-to-others to be carried on the Cassini space probe. Though most of us are familiar with the gold plaque loaded on the Voyager probes, this was meant to be an updated version of this effort. Unfortunately, even though an interesting message was developed, the effort was doomed and replaced by a politically-neutral DVD containing an utterly meaningless list of names…

[March 2009: I wrote this review in 1999 and, along the way, touched upon a conflict between Gregory Benford and Carolyn Porco described in the book’s “Vaults in Vacuum” chapter. In September 2002, Carolyn Porco wrote to me to explain that she disagreed with her characterization in Benford’s book and allowed me to post a few corrections. In March 2009, Gregory Benford wrote to me to explain that he disagreed with the corrections and suggested corrections of his own.

You know what? Life is too short, I respect both Benford and Porco (from afar) too much, and I’m too ignorant of the matters discussed to try to abitrate. All three of us have better things to do. So I have removed both the original content and the corrections (the most curious of you know where to go to find the archives), and would rather leave you with the smartest thing I’ve learned from this decade-long episode. In the (last) words of Carolyn Porco:

Next time, reserve judgement until you’ve met and spoken to the individuals involved.

The book become less interesting as Benford gets on a high environmental soapbox in the last half of the book. The third part still turns around a worthwhile idea, as Benford tells of his proposition to build a “Library of Life”, a repository of DNA from most of today’s species of plants and animals threatened by extinction. Though not a startlingly original project, Benford uses this as a springboard to other related subjects (conservationism, taxonomy, scientific politics, etc…).

But the fourth quarter grates as it veers off in a well-intentioned, but strikingly unoriginal rant about how humanity is already sending deep-time messages by environment degradation. Though Benford keeps things interesting with little-known facts, the impression left by this section is one of déjà-vu: Not exactly why one would pick up the book in the first place.

Additionally, Benford leaves out an important part of any deep time projection: The very real possibility of increased lifespans and of political stabilization. While this isn’t a flaw by itself, this omission does get a bit suspicious after the umpteenth time Benford talk about short human lives. Wouldn’t longevity undermine his thesis? Maybe…

Still, despite a rather heavy-handed environmentalist screed in the second half of the book, Benford keeps thing interesting, and Deep Time fulfills the goal of any decent non-fiction science vulgarization: Make us discover thing we didn’t know before. Or cared about.