Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford

Gregory Benford and Relativistic Effects




I once attended a talk given by renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose where he described binary pulsars as the most beautiful objects in the universe, as they fulfill every prediction made by the Theory of Relativity. Similarly, the stories of Gregory Benford are among the most beautifully written in science fiction, not just because of their prose but how they illuminate the laws and hidden facets of the universe. As a physicist himself, much of Benford’s science fiction is distinguished by both his keen observations of the lives of scientists and his finely detailed depictions of them at work, and his ability to vividly convey the sort of cognitive and sensory impressions that are part of their experiences. He is able to chart vast vistas across space and time, as with his Galactic Center series, but even when he stays Earthbound, as with Timescape and Cosm, which are probably the genre’s best depictions of actual science at work, the entire fabric of the cosmos becomes essential to the story as it is revealed to both the protagonists and the reader. If there is a single passage that best sums up Benford’s fiction, it probably comes late in Against Infinity, when the now-grown up protagonist contemplates the fragment of the Aleph (the mysterious alien object that has wrecked havoc on humanity’s Ganymede colonies) as another character explains what the object means to their understanding of the basic laws and forces of nature.

What’s even more remarkable is that even Benford’s short stories are able to encompass the totality of the universe, its laws and languages, its mechanisms and mysteries, with the same simple beauty and elegance that a scientific equation manages to perfectly express in mathematical form. Following Hemingway’s dictum that you write what you know about, much of Benford’s  fiction derives from his own work as a scientist in the fields of experimental astrophysics and plasma physics, and his short story “Relativistic Effects” (reprinted in the collection In Alien Flesh) is one of the best examples of this. Inspired by a paper he had read on plasma jets in stars, he set about imagining what it would like to perceive such phenomena from the outside looking in; the finished story, as he admitted, wound up being an unconscious homage to Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (which we just discussed; you did read it, right?). Although there are certainly similarities between the writing styles of Benford and Anderson, there are also crucial differences. Most notably, Anderson, despite a poetic writing style that transcended the genre’s pulp origins, was firmly a member of science fiction’s “Old Guard” standing in defense of its literary traditions. Benford, on the other hand, belonged to a younger generation of fans who grew up first with Heinlein’s juveniles, and whose adult entry into the genre was not with Astounding but with Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction, magazines which emphasized social commentary and high literary standards as opposed to scientific rigor. Moreover, Benford was also influenced, although not unduly so, by the New Wave when he started writing, in particular by the American writer Roger Zelzany, who fended off comparisons with the largely British writers who spearheaded the movement by insisting that what he wrote was “style with substance” instead of style at the expense of substance (as cited by Jack Chalker in his introduction to his collection Dance Band on the Titanic). Consequently, Benford has also been inspired by major American storytellers from William Faulkner to John Cheever in his writing, finding ways to experiment with literary devices to strengthen instead of subvert basic storytelling. “Relativistic Effects” also reminds me of Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos in its stylistic use of “accelerated” collage to create the impression of events occurring rapidly juxtaposed with those occurring in “real time.” In Benford’s case, there is an obvious reason for using such a literary device in a hard-science fiction story: it helps to convey the relativistic effects of the title without resorting to higher mathematics or technical jargon inaccessible to non-specialists. It is this use of mainstream literary technique to convey not just scientific facts  but the lives of the scientist and the process of how science works, something that might be called literary scientific realism, that has put Benford at the forefront of modern hard science fiction writers.

Also like Dos Passos (and unlike Anderson), Benford focuses on the role of the working classes in his story, and here there is a curious similarity between them as well. Dos Passos was one of the original “neo-conservatives,” a Trotskyite and democratic socialist in 1920s and 1930s who like many others, turned sharply to the Political Right, and became a libertarian-leaning conservative for the rest of his life. Although Benford maintains that he still considers himself “an honorary member of the Left,” albeit one of the “anarcho-syndicalist variety” (in the Afterword for Worlds Vast and Various) he has nonetheless been a registered Libertarian for many years. His actual political views, however, with a heavy emphasis on both free markets and environmental protection coupled with scientific advancement and a truly rational and pragmatic approach to policy decisions (as opposed to others on the Left who use the rhetoric of rationality and pragmatism to sell irrational and ideological proposals), seem closer to those of the Modern Whig Party than any other. Whereas Poul Anderson had an automated control center monitoring and maintaining the faster-than light vessel in Tau Zero,  the ship in Benford’s story (which also uses a “ram-scoop” mechanism to achieve relativistic velocities) requires the use of human “servos” to guide it; those who elect to this dangerous job not only put themselves in harm’s way with each journey, continually colliding with particles and radiation at relativistic speeds, but the long-term effects of these exposures critically shortens their life expectancy. They are not unlike those sailors in naval vessels who had continually exposed themselves to asbestos while working in the engine rooms. Already knowingly reducing their lifespans for other crew members, they are further asked to sacrifice even more as part of a plan to save two galaxies on the verge of collision…

“Relativistic Effects” shares much of its scientific basis with the Galactic Center series, drawing heavily from then-cutting edge work in astronomy and astrophysics, particularly Benford’s specialty of plasma jets. Although acclaimed for their complex, solidly-scientific depictions of AI lifeforms, it is less recognized for its formidable feats of world-building as well, which involve not just planets but whole stars, nebula clusters and black holes.  As Benford explained in the preface to the 2004 reissue of the first book in the series, In the Ocean of Night (0riginally published in 1977),  this task  strongly corresponded with his ongoing research in electrodynamic models in astrophysics (the paper that came out of that research can be read here) . The passages of “Relativistic Effects” describing the process of acceleration feel not so much like condensations of such a paper but a re-interpretation, in which the equations have not only been translated into words but transformed through a process of synesthesia, much like the effect the Aleph of Against Infinity has on those who observe it. The reader experiences the sensation of being at the heart of a plasma jet at relativistic speeds, aware of every force-gravitational, nuclear and electromagnetic-and every state of matter, from the huge billowing clouds of gas down the smallest particle, and the interactions between them.  Relativity is essential not just to the study of vast expanses of space and time, but tiny ones as well, a fact that Benford illustrates in this story and in others, such as “High Abyss” and “Mozart and Morphine,” which go even further, by making the connection between both cosmic strings and the birth of the cosmos (in the former) and the everyday life of the physicist (in the latter).

One of the ongoing quests of physics has been to try to reconcile General Relativity, which explains gravity, with Quantum Field Theory, which explains the other three fundamental forces, a so far daunting task due to language differences, one speaking geometry, the other algebra. Gregory Benford, who has also written frequently on another ongoing effort at reconciliation, between C.P. Snow’s competing Two Cultures of the Sciences and the Humanities, has found his own way to reconcile the Two Theories by bringing together the Two Cultures through the lingua franca of science fiction. When reading a story or book by Benford, the Nature of the Universe reveals itself, through a subtle use of the scientific method, and we come to realize how it is all connected, from the forces at the heart of a massive black hole to the more subtle shifts of electrons and photons. Even more importantly, we come to recognize how wonderful it is that we are able, as sentient and thinking organisms, to understand these phenomena and unities, an understanding that forms the basis of scientific theories.  Such an Epiphany Of Reason seems like a contradiction in terms, yet it probably best describes the experience of the Sense of Wonder while reading science fiction-especially hard science fiction intended to illuminate the nature of the physical universe.

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