Category: Science Fact

Cultural Discordance and the Evolution of Chivalry:  Western European Conflict as Moral Imperative

Cultural Discordance and the Evolution of Chivalry: Western European Conflict as Moral Imperative

The philosophical concepts of Chivalry develop from a mixture of what seem to be essentially two incompatible ethical systems; The Judeo-Christian ethical system and the warrior virtues of the Celtic/German tribal people of Europe. These two systems on the surface do not seem compatible and taken together should mix as well as oil and water. The ideology of Christ and that of the tribal people of Europe are in opposition in almost every way. So how did these two systems come together to form the underpinning of both Western society and the ethical imperative of the warrior class which dominated that society?

The answer to this question lies within the violent cultural mélange that was taking place in Europe at the fall of the Roman Empire. Out of this stew pot of cultural clash the ethical system of Chivalry arose. Chivalry combined aspects of Christian piety and ethics with the violent and individualistic hero worship of the European tribal people. Both these groups had inherited what was left of the fallen Roman Empire. The glue that held the church and tribal people together was their belief in the Roman idea of empire. The individualist warrior class that arose from the fall of Rome was a mess of conflicting beliefs. Those beliefs coalesced out of a mixture of German/Celtic barbarism, Roman civil ethics, and Christian mysticism. These cultures which had clashed during the long fall of Rome merged and began a thousand year domination of the ideology of the Western European upper classes. This emerging ideology would be called Chivalry after the French word for horseman and would arguably become the most important ethical philosophy of the middle ages.


Christian Morality and Chivalry

The warrior class in Europe had internalized Roman and Aristotelian philosophy during the long years of Roman domination, but with the fall of Rome the Catholic Church was working feverously to instill Christian beliefs and ideas into the ruling classes among these warriors. The Heliand or  Saxon Bible is one of these endeavors. To make Christian theology palatable to the warrior class Catholic monks recreated the New Testament gospels into a story that matched the type of heroic epic that German culture was accustom too. In the Heliand Joseph and Mary are transformed into heroic warrior figures Joseph a noble “Knight” and Mary a princess. Christ is the son of God and the promised “Warrior King” who will unite all the tribes.  It is a very different interpretation of the Gospel with magic, castles, and mystical heroes. A tale suited to entice the German pagans to convert. The Heliand is very similar to the same type of Arthurian tales that had been popular just after the fall of Rome in Briton and one might wonder if the origins of the Arthurian legends are not a lost mythology created by earlier Briton Christians seeking converts as well. Arthur is undoubtedly a British Christ figure. The once and future King who works to unite all the kingdoms in peace and equality.  A man prophesied to return from the dead and save Briton in a time of trouble. Far too many similarities exist to the Heliand to dismiss this as chance.

In the introduction to the Heliand by Ronald Murphy he states the Heliand” is intended to bring the gospel home to the Saxons in a poetic environment in order to help the Saxons to cease their vacillation between their warrior loyalty to the old Gods and to the might of Christ”[1]. Murphy believes that this work was never meant to be read in the church itself but was meant to be a Bible for laymen and warrior chiefs. It was to be recited in the mead halls as an epic poem. This epic was just different enough from the original gospel to fit into the warrior beliefs of these German tribes, just as the tales of Arthur fit into this same mold. Both works were geared towards turning a warrior tribal people away from their old religions to the new Christian faith. Sidney Painter in his work sees knighthood as an extension of several different philosophical ideologies. One philosophy dominated by the Germanic tribal warrior’s belief in prowess at arms, a second devoted to the Church militant, and a third devoted to a late outgrowth of chivalry devoted to sensual pleasures. The first two overlap greatly and it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish the holy knight from that one who holds the ideas of Christ first and foremost.  “From the sixth to the eleventh centuries the church strove to curb the typical vices of the warrior class or to turn them into channels it approved”[2] the Heliand was just one of the ways that the church sought to indoctrinate the warrior class. Another method that Painter discusses is the sublimation of violence to more useful efforts that served the church. The crusades were the culmination of these efforts. The crusades marked the ultimate power of the Church over the ideas of chivalry and the knights that followed those ideas. Here the church could use their influence over the flowering philosophy and develop for itself an army of true believers willing to die for their cause. When Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade on November 27, 1095 little did he realize how well the church had done its job at inculcating the people of Europe with the ideas of Christianity or how heart felt was the fervent desire to show their dedication to the cause of Christ. This desire was born out of a clash of cultures, the Christian ethics had merged with the tribal aggressive and warlike nature and born from this fusion were the knights of the church.“The response was immediate and tremendous. Cries of  ‘Deus le Volt’ God wills it interrupted the speech”[3]. With the crusades in full swing and the promise of eternal salvation for dying in the service of the church, the ideas of Christian piety would be stamped onto chivalry until well after the renaissance.


German and Celtic Hero Worship and Its role in the formation of Chivalry


“About this time, the king of England resolved to rebuild and embellish the great castle of Windsor, which King Arthur had first founded in time past, and where he had erected and established that noble round table from whence so many gallant knights had issued forth, and displayed the valiant prowess of their deeds at arms over the world.”[4]


The ideas that helped bind Christian morals and tribal warrior virtue into a coherent chivalric idea was the idea of the heroic individual. This idea helped navigate the difficulty in creating a warrior class that at once reveled in prideful boasts and great deeds, kept faith with their liege lord, and at the same time gave more than lip service to the ideas of virtue and humility that came with a belief in Christ. A cursory look at European cultural identity will show that the framework on which the chivalric philosophy rested existed in Europe prior to the influence of either Romans or Christians. This framework existed in both the Germanic and Celtic tribes that made up the bulk of the European population. These people had a tradition of what approximated Knighthood only lacking according to Sidney Painter “the nourishment of twelfth century France to spring into full flower.”[5] By this Painter means that the ideas of chivalry manifested and paired with the ideas of Christian courtesy and the Feudal commitment in the twelfth century and with this fusion it became a complete philosophy. The individualist hero had become the tame individual whose individuality was measured and tempered by his feudal obligations. As the middle-ages progressed Knighthood evolved from the rampaging Beowulf to the courteous Lancelot. Both literature and culture reflected the new individual as hero. The knight transformed in the twelfth century from tribesman to loyal servant while still maintaining his individuality. “[T]he fundamental quality of feudalism is reflected in one of the chief doctrines of their metaphysics: the self-sufficiency of the individual”[6] This individuality allowed the warrior class to embrace the Christian ethic of individual salvation. It encouraged that individual to see himself as a warrior of Christ rather than just a tribal thug.

Of course the evolution to this feudal knight began long before the twelfth century. We can see the beginnings of these warrior elite in the Romano-Celtic stories of King Arthur. To even consider the ideas of Chivalry without a discussion of Arthur would be to do no justice to the subject. Painter focuses almost solely on the contributions of the Germans and French to the ideas of Chivalry but it is in the sagas and stories of the early Britons that most of our mythology about knights and Chivalry are created. Those twelfth century French nobles who put the finishing touches on this warrior philosophy certainly had Arthur in mind as many of the stories of Arthur and his knights appear in France at this time. The warrior idea then develops from both the tribal German and the tribal Celtic tradition. The Germans provide Beowulf and Percival as the founding knights of their branch of Chivalry and the Celtic/Romans providing Arthur, and Galahad. The Celtic tradition also gives us the ideas surrounding the Holy Grail as it is a substitution of many different magical cups and bowls in Celtic mythology.


Contradictory Beliefs and Social Cohesion

The fall of Rome was a time of upheaval and of conflict. Small kingdoms rose and fell constantly. Western Europe had been thrown into a dark age without Rome to lead and warriors were constantly vying for power among themselves and with the Christian church. How does social cohesion come out of the conflict between these very different and competing systems of value. Much of this can be explained away by the fact that Chivalry was for the most part a very individualistic philosophy and that the individual was allowed to create for himself a way of thinking that could encompass the contradictions. That the church had bent over backwards to accommodate that type of thinking is evident by such things as the Heliand and the church’s ability to embrace pagan gods as saints and incorporate the worship of these gods into Christian theology. This allowed Christianity to out compete some of the other religious philosophies that had much more rigid theological rules. This does not however explain how a religion that at its core promotes peace and love could be shoehorned to fit the fractious warrior ethics of the tribal peoples of Europe.

To understand this I think one must understand the place the Church gave itself in medieval society. The church became not the tribe itself but an extension of the tribal family. We begin to see church leaders called father and brother. Female leaders become mother. We have what to the tribal people of Europe is an even more important place for the church than as a political entity. The Church becomes family and as such family is more central to their lives. This fits into the tribal sensibility in a way that other religions lacked. God was the head of the family the Father Head. It was a very personal religious experience very removed from the impersonal gods of both the German and Celtic tribes. This family aspect helped tie the tribal warrior to the Church. The idea of the Mother of God and her mercy may be one of the most important aspects that the Church allowed. This helped bind the warrior class to the teachings of the Church. You constantly find Mary mentioned alongside God in every medieval text, “that is those who love, serve, and honor God and His gentle Mother.”[7] Even here in a text that explains the very rules of war and Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charney you have admonition after admonition to the mother of God. This aspect of the family appealed greatly to the tribal people and the belief that these supernatural beings were here now and part of a larger family of man helped mediate a truce between the conflicting ideas of a tribal warrior culture and the Christian feudal culture that had begun to supplant it.


Late Medieval Knighthood the Culmination of Chivalry

Knighthood and the ideas of Chivalry are intertwined and where one ends and the other begins is a question almost more fit for philosophers than historians. What we do know is that the end result of the conflict between the ethical ideas of Christianity and the individualistic ideas of tribal Europe created the vibrant feudal culture and brought about the rise of the philosophy of Chivalry among the Nobility. As the middle ages waned these ideas slowly began to diminish in importance until they are often little more than philosophical ideas without real world application. By the end of the 14th century chivalry had begun to wane. The ideas were celebrated in songs and story but the ideas no longer held true to the newer generations. The tribal culture had been completely subdued and the Church was on the verge of a century of breakup and dissolution because of its own excesses. Without these two philosophical powerhouses to drive it chivalry was to die and be replaced by a more modern and less warrior centered culture. Nobles would hire others to make war for them and these mercenaries would change the face of combat. Chivalry would live on and from time to time be trotted out as spectacle. Even today the last vestiges of the old ideas flitter around the corners of our society influencing us as a culture is ways we may not even realize.



The medieval value system was in essence a continuation of all the Western values dating back to at least the time of Greece. We see in the Greek the very same elevation of the individualist hero that we have in the later European middle ages. This is of course because both Greece and Europe share an Indo-European heritage in which the individual warrior/hero is exalted. This idea of the individual hero became somewhat submerged in the state centered Rome. Where the Empire and civilization becomes the central figure and the individual sublimated himself to the idea of Rome. The rise of Christianity in the late Roman period pairs perfectly with this idea of the centrality of “State” over the individual where the idea of the state as father is replaced with the idea of “God” as father. You can see that in Augustine’s City of God where he states that the Romans of antiquity were virtuous pagans but that the city while great was one of this world and has now been replaced by his City of God.

The values of the early medieval warrior are not those values cherished by the Romans. The European knight is not a Roman hero who wins because he is part of a greater Empire but something far older; he is the winner of the Hero’s portion. An individual striving and winning by his own prowess.  The values of the Church and of Rome often run in direct contradiction to the earlier ethical ideas of the Germans and Celtics. Stressing humility over pride. Medieval chivalric values become a series of contradictory beliefs that must all be held at once. You are an avenging warrior, who is also a child of a forgiving God. Your must prized value is pride and nobility, but you must also be humble and free of sin. You are a virile man who lusts after women, wine, and song, but you must also be the chaste paragon of virtue who is a symbol of the state. Is it any wonder the poems include someone like Lancelot who was both the most noble of all warriors but who was fatally flawed.  Chivalry contradicts itself because it was cobbled together out of so many different ideas and cultures. The importance of chivalry is that while it was a flawed philosophy it worked and drug Europe out of the Dark ages maintaining order and at least some peace between cultural groups that may have never recovered after the fall of Rome without it and those who followed it.



This article attempts to draw a conclusion about the evolution of Chivalry out of several disparate ethical and cultural entities. There is one other ethical system that existed prior to the fall of Rome that may or may not have influenced the rise of Chivalry in Western Europe, The ethics of Aristotle specifically those ethics discussed in his work Nicomachean Ethics. Did these ethics have any influence over the development of Chivalry? The roman warrior elite would have certainly been exposed to Aristotle along with many of the early Christian philosophers. Is it a stretch to believe that these ideas could have trickled down into the warrior elite of medieval society?




Rome and Aristotle’s role in Chivalry

We find in the values of the early Middle Ages a stable system of belief that would eventually be called chivalry. Early modern writers on the subject such as Sidney Painter suggested that Chivalric ideas are directly centered on German and Anglo Saxon ethics and Christian beliefs. He gives very little credit to ideas of a Roman tradition and no mention of Aristotle at all in his book French Chivalry. This may be a mistake, the Roman tradition is all important to the medieval mind. Rome was the center of knowledge and power to conquerors like Charlemagne who sought to recreate Rome in his own Empire. This was not just lip service to these men they believed in Rome and in rebuilding the Roman Empire. They read the histories or had them read to them. Aristotle was an important part of this Roman idea. In Norman F. Cantor’s work The Last Knight he acknowledges that at least late in the late middle ages young knights were being educated in Aristotle, “These short tomes were written by university scholars educated in Aristotelian tradition, the principles the Mirror of Princes inculcated was drawn heavily from Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.”[8] This is an important admission and points to the fact that knights may have often been educated in these ideas. If we look at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics we can see the entirety of what could be called the Chivalric virtues laid out hundreds of years prior to any Western writer referring to them. In book three Aristotle lists these virtues as Liberality, Magnificence, Greatness of soul, Proper Ambition, Gentleness, Agreeableness, Sincerity, Wittiness, Modesty. These read almost the same as the knightly virtues with just slight differences and it is certainly closer to the tribal virtues that informed early chivalry than any of the Christian virtues that contradict many of these. Could Aristotle really be the father of the medieval ethic? Charlemagne certainly sought out and emulated the Roman idea as much as possible. Could his influence have added the ideas of Aristotle to the instruction he gave his own fighters. Or is this just a case of parallel evolution of ideas where tribal customs match philosophical ideas. This subject is worthy of further in depth study much more than what can be accomplished in this article.

[1] Murphy, G. Ronald, trans. the Heliand: the Saxon Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 16.


[2] Sidney Painter, French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), 66.


[3] Steven Runciman. The First Crusade.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 43.


[4] Jean Froissart, and Geoffrey Brereton. Chronicles (London: Penguin Classics, 1978), 66.


[5] Sidney Painter, French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), 32.

[6] Maurice De Wulf, Philosophy & Civilization in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ, US: Princeton University Press. 1922), 61


[7] Geoffroi de Charney, Richard W. Kaeuper, and Elspeth Kennedy. A knight’s own book of chivalry: Geoffroi De Charny (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 80.

[8] Norman F. Cantor The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era (New York: Free Press, 2004),88.



Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield


The first few years of the Millennium were dark ones for fans of hard science fiction. In 2001, Poul Anderson died, followed a few months later by his frequent collaborator Gordon Dickson. Then in 2003, Hal Clement, who did more than any other writer to develop hard science fiction as an identifiable sub-genre by introducing a new degree of scientific rigor in writing and helped make world-building an art form, also passed away. Between these two massive losses came possibly the most tragic of them all, as physicist and writer Charles Sheffield lost a brief but brave battle with an aggressive brain tumor in 2002. Although he had begun writing quite late in life, Sheffield had nonetheless quickly developed a reputation as one of hard science fiction’s finest practitioners, a prolific and versatile writer whose diverse stories and series combined, as Spider Robinson (who would name the spaceship in his Heinlein paste-up Variable Star after his late colleague and friend) said, “the scientific grounding of Clarke, the storytelling skills of a Heinlein, the dry wit of a Pohl or Kornbluth, and the universe-building prowess of a Niven.” I would also add that he possessed Gregory Benford’s skill at realistic and believable depictions of scientists and science at work…even as practiced many centuries from now. As wondrous and exciting as his many novels and short stories were, there was still the feeling that the best was yet to come; alas, as had been the case with Stanley Weinbaum three quarters of a century earlier, the cruelties of cancer once again stole us of a promise yet to be fulfilled, and we can only surmise as to what might have been.

Although one would surmise based on the main topic of this series of essays that I would analyze Sheffield’s novel Godspeed, I have decided instead to look at the stories that make up the shared-universe collection One Man’s Universe. For obvious reasons, I am quite fond of the book’s hero, Scottish scientific genius of the far future Arthur Morton McAndrew, described as the greatest physicist since Newton and Einstein, and the first in many a century to be both a brilliant experimenter and theorist alike. A comparison of Sheffield’s depiction of scientists and their work in these stories with those by Gregory Benford demonstrates the wide variety of approaches a hard science fiction writer can take with their material. Whereas Benford is primarily an experimental physicist by profession who does theoretical work as well as fiction writing on the side, * Sheffield was a theoretical physicist whose day job as a Chief Scientist for the Earth Satellite Corporation put him in the position of adviser on a variety of experimental work. There is a profound difference in the worlds of the theoretician and experimentalist in physics, although they both require each other in order to succeed, a fact that is reflected in the science fiction of both authors. Benford’s science fiction is based primarily in speculations and extrapolations on the nature of the universe derived from discoveries made through experimental work and observation; Sheffield, on the other hand, specialized in literal “thought experiments” that dealt with how we might credibly test our more extravagant theories and speculations and what applications might be derived from them. The scientific method continues to hold strong in Sheffield’s universe as his scientists continue to push and explore its boundaries, following Clarke’s Second Law to the letter.

Sheffield was frequently compared to Arthur C. Clarke as a master of hard science fiction that was also exciting and accessible, and the comparison I think is particularly apt, since Sheffield’s literary voice was also the most American-sounding for a British SF writer since that of Clarke himself, or maybe Eric Frank Russell. He was a writer for whom the New Wave that originated in his home country had  seemingly totally passed by, favoring instead to hark back to the American pulps and paperbacks of yore. Even as hard SF itself was given a distinct British voice in the Eighties and Nineties by such writers as Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds who owed more to an earlier generation of British SF writers that included Brian Aldiss and Ian Watson than American scribes, Sheffield, already a longtime resident of the United States by the time he began writing, worked firmly in the Analog tradition, demonstrating the strong influence of Asimov and Heinlein as well as Clarke in his prose style and plots. Interestingly enough, Sheffield himself stated, in his contribution to Yojo Kondo’s Requiem, that he had always thought of Heinlein as an archetypical British writer. Science fiction, like science itself, speaks a lingua franca understood and appreciated all over the world.

The warp-drive ship featured in the McAndrew Chronicles (also the original published title of One Man’s Universe), is very different from the ramjet in Anderson’s Tau Zero or Benford’s “Relativistic Effects,” but is no less based in solid science. The McAndrew Balanced Drive, as it is called, consists of a simple disc of curved, super-dense matter in front providing gravitational acceleration according to the rules of the equivalence principle in general relativity, propelled by an engine that taps the energy of the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Of course, as Sheffield takes care to point out in his explanatory notes, despite the actual science involved, it is still fiction, and there are problems that would arise with such a mechanism in the real world. Besides the fact that we still cannot produce stable masses sufficiently dense for the purposes of such a drive, there would still be the matter of tidal effects upon its passengers and cargo, and the energies of the vacuum, despite being a very real consequence of quantum electrodynamics, not only remain untapped, but may very well be forever inaccessible for any useful purpose. Nonetheless, hard science fiction does not need to restrict itself to only that which is probable; the improbable but possible according to physical laws is very much part of the genre as well. There may never be a McAndrew Balanced Drive in the real world, but it still works as science fiction because Sheffield went through the effort to demonstrate how such a device could conceivably work according to known physical laws. As if that were not enough, he provides some more detailed but no less elegantly-written explanations at the end of the book on the scientific basis for each individual story. Hard science fiction is as much a form of rhetoric as it is narrative, an attempt at argument as well as entertainment, one that tries to persuade the reader that its speculations are within the scope of both possibility and probability through appeals to scientific fact.

Although each Chronicle can be read and enjoyed in any order, I still recommend reading them in sequence, as not only do the stories build upon one another, but the science in each Chronicle builds upon that featured in the one that immediately precedes it. The McAndrew Drive may not be introduced until the Second Chronicle entitled “Moment of Inertia”, but not only is it featured in each successive one, but the scientific basis is already laid down in the First Chronicle, “Killing Vector” with the discussion of Kerr-Newman black holes, which McAndrew has figured out how to artificially create and contain in miniature forms called “Kernels” (not unlike the quantum black holes in Larry Niven’s “The Hole Man,” itself another exceptional portrayal of future scientists at work). The Drive leads to the topic of vacuum-point energy that figures in the third chronicle, “All the Colors of the Vacuum,” and its ability to travel great distances permits the exploration of the Oort Cloud in “Manna Hunt”. As the ship ventures beyond the gravitational halo of our own Solar System, this results in dark matter and the Big Bang Theory being the scientific focus of “Shadow World,” a culmination of the exposition on relativity and cosmology in the all the preceding Chronicles. Discussing the origins and unsolved mysteries of the universe necessitates a broader discussion of how science understands the laws governing its known workings, which is what “The Invariants of Nature” is all about, and “Rogueworld” brings all the key scientific themes together in its highly speculative ring of black holes and rogue planets, wandering through the universe. A key theme in the book is that not only is the scientific method the best means of learning and problem-solving we have, but that knowledge itself is not created within a vacuum but builds upon that which is previously known, (the principle of “radical conservatism” put forth by the great physicist John A. Wheeler), gradually culminating until an endpoint arrives where we can properly assume that we have a theory that explains it all. If Sheffield the Experimenter used the individual Chronicles to test speculations about the universe, Sheffield the Theorist puts them all together to demonstrate for his readers how science actually works. It is often mistakenly assumed that the purpose of science fiction is to make predictions, but that is actually the function of scientific theories themselves; science fiction just takes those predictions and makes them accessible to the layperson. And just as in science, a theory only emerges after individual predictions have been tested and found to be themselves invariant in all frames of reference, it is only after reading the book in its entirety that one can truly discern the themes across each individual story.

As I write this, scientists everywhere are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s papers that laid out the Theory of General Relativity, and science fiction writers should be celebrating it as well; more than any other scientific discovery it has permitted the genre to go beyond Wells and Verne and expand its speculative horizons. Sheffield, Anderson and Benford are just three of the writers who have been able to use it to craft works of literature as well as entertainment, and even if the field is currently mired in literary faddishness (a polite way of saying bad writing) and under the yoke of far-left identity politics, the advances in scientific knowledge will continue enrich the possibilities for writers as surely they enrich our own lives as well.

*As Dr. Benford has politely corrected us below, he is actually primarily a theorist although he has done moonlighting as an experimenter on the side. However, we have left the paragraph unchanged as not only as the points about the differences between his work and Sheffield’s remains valid, but it helps illustrate how theory and experiment influence the writing of SF.

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

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 a strong support of both the public and private sector in 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.

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson


Writers of hard science fiction, that most rigorously realistic of the genre’s subdivisions, pride themselves on their unwavering commitment to scientific accuracy and adherence to the known laws and facts of the physical universe in their stories, yet they find themselves making a necessary exception for one of the most significant of all its invariants. Since the Theory of Special Relativity has established that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, which has only been further buttressed by experiment and observation, the practitioners of hard science are forced to bend their own principles slightly whenever their stories go beyond our own Solar System. Fortunately, the Great Einstein giveth as much as he taketh away, and the many fascinating predictions and outcomes of both Special and General Relativity have provided the “loopholes” many writers are looking for in trying to explain how their characters can traverse such great distances. In some instances, the stories are specifically about faster-than-light travel itself; the brand-new Christopher Nolan film INTERSTELLAR follows a well-worn path to the stars that science fiction writers have traveled many times before, attempting to explain how FTL or the “warp drive” in terms that are consistent with current scientific knowledge, and using it as a platform for both the stories and themes. The movie has its own pedigree in real-world science as well, being based on a story idea by noted cosmologist Kip Thorne, whose textbook Gravitation, written in collaboration with John Archibald Weaver and Charles Meisner, is cited by friends of mine in the know as the definitive book on the subject . Hopefully, the movie will also pique interest in the written word, getting curious viewers to search out the classic science fiction stories that already grappled with the premise of faster-than-light travel from as solidly scientific and rigorously rational a perspective as possible. With that, we will begin a three-part look at some of the finest works of dealing with the premise in hard science fiction, and what they have to say about the treatment of science and the physical universe in science fiction: Poul Anderson‘s novel Tau Zero, Gregory Benford‘s short story “Relativistic Effects,” and the selected short stories that make up Charles Sheffield’s collection One Man’s Universe.


It is rather unfortunate that there is only one legitimate film adaptation of Poul Anderson’s novels, and it is a terrible one at that: a truly awful “comedic” German adaptation of his exciting novel The High Crusade. Even so, Anderson, who wrote prolifically at what were usually very high levels of literary quality in as wide a variety of science fiction and fantasy as is possible, has seemingly made his own small mark on science fiction film: when James Cameron’s blockbuster AVATAR was released, many noticed its similarities to Anderson’s celebrated novella “Call Me Joe” (but not his novel The Avatar), something I had myself noticed a few years earlier when Cameron’s project was still in Development Hell and a draft of the screenplay was floating around the Internet. Cameron is not the only filmmaker who seems to have borrowed from Anderson: David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK is quite reminiscent of Anderson’s Fire Time, and the aliens of GALAXY QUEST who take every statement literally seem descended from the Hoka! Anderson created with Gordon Dickson. Fans of both BABYLON 5 and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE should read the stories in Anderson’s Technic History series, to see where the writers for those shows may have learned how to depict the politics of a spacefaring mercantile culture (for that matter, G’Kar is exactly how I imagined Anderson’s Merseians as resembling). Finally, Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR owes a considerable debt to Anderson’s Tau Zero, possibly the Grand Master’s finest book. The cover of my Gollancz copy features a blurb by James Blish hailing it as “the ultimate hard science fiction novel.” While there are other legitimate contenders to that title (Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Gregory Benford’s Timescape among them), I can’t think of another novel that from a purely thematic perspective best exemplifies this particular subgenre. Poul Anderson is usually not thought of as being primarily a hard science fiction writer because he wrote in so many other different genres and sub-genres, but he was one of science fiction’s premiere “world-builders,” writing some of the key essays on how to create scientifically credible alien worlds and planets, and was a master of the “puzzle story,” a variant of the mystery or detective story (which Anderson also wrote prolifically) in which the solution lies in the scientific method. Anderson’s proficiency in these areas as well as in prose writing in general helped produce one of the most masterful works in the genre. Even if one is to argue over whether it is the “definitive” hard science fiction novel, it is the one I would try to introduce to a novice reader to get them interested in the subgenre, and appreciate it as one of literary merit.

The initial premise of the novel is not unlike that of the excellent, underrated Czech science fiction film Ikarie Xb-1 (released in an edited form in North America as Voyage to the End of the Universe), depicting the human drama between members of a space journey to settle the planet located in the star system Beta Virginis. Anderson’s world-building skills are not used this time in the construction of the planet of destination but the vessel of voyage, and this is as much a feat of physics as it is of engineering. As with Thomas Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” (which is itself frequently cited as the definitive hard science fiction short story), the action may take in the confines of a single spaceship but the actual drama takes place against the backdrop of the entire universe, whose laws and limits help define both the outcome of the story and the actions of the characters. The setting is the spaceship Leonora Christina, another tip of the hat to Anderson’s Danish ancestry that recurs throughout his fiction. The real Leonora Christina was a 17th-Century countess, the daughter of the King of Denmark, who spent two decades in solitary confinement as punishment by the royal family for the supposed crimes of her Dutch husband (who was executed), during which time she wrote a celebrated autobiography and became a Danish folk hero, a symbol of stoicism and endurance in the face of long-lasting hardship. Time, and history, seemingly stood still for the real Leonora Christina in the walls of her dungeon cell during her imprisonment, who gave up her freedom for love, just as those who voluntarily sign up for the space journey will find that time will slow down and they will lose touch with hundreds of years of human history once they have completed their journey. Under the leadership of Constable Charles Reymont, a crew of 50, of equal numbers men and women from all races and nationalities, and consisting of highly trained scientists, engineers and other experts, tries to deal with both technical and interpersonal crises when the ship accidentally collides with a nebula on its way out. This unexpected change of course forces the crew to adapt to a new change in its mission as well, and it turns out that there is something even more profound than just the survival of the ship’s crew at stake.

To be excessively pedantic, the Leonora Christina is not really a warp drive, as it does not go faster than light, just 99% of it. The ship is a Brussard Ramjet, a popular spacefaring vessel in science fiction of the period, that continually scoops interstellar hydrogen and other free atoms to fuel the ion engines that propel it outwards through the void. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle that everyone knows by its mathematical shorthand, as the ship continues to gather mass to accelerate itself, it nears the tau zero of the title, where its velocity will finally equal the speed of light. Now, it goes without saying that the Brussard Ramjet itself will likely remain an improbability, if not outright impossibility; as Larry Niven explains in his essay “Bigger Than Worlds” (published in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind) it involves certain absolutes, such as an infinite fuel supply in all directions and 100% efficiency to work properly. But its importance in Tau Zero is as an illustration of the process of how the universe functions, and the evolution of our perception of its workings. We move upward from the classical Newtonian-Maxwellian model to the Einsteinian, first through the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction that bridged classical mechanics with special relativity, and as both the ship and the storyline accelerate in momentum, the wider notions of general relativity (which Einstein formulated by applying his ideas in special relativity to accelerated frames of reference) enter the narrative as well.

In addition to his Scandinavian background, the Pennsylvania-born, Texas-raised, University of Minnesota-educated Anderson also draws proudly and profoundly from his American heritage as well. If you are wondering how you can successfully write a so-called “Space Western” that successfully works as science fiction, then Tau Zero is the book to read. The vivid prose seems to owe much to the classic Western novels of Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer and Zane Grey, and story itself is not like those of such films as STAGECOACH and RED RIVER, about the travails and conflicts of those settling The Open Frontier, and the hero Reymont (not an American but a native of Earth’s Antarctic colonies, strengthening at once that he is a Citizen of the World and a Child of Pioneers) could very well have been played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Joel McCrea. The publication of Tau Zero was regarded by many, according to David Pringle in The 100 Best Science Fiction Novels, as a repudiation of the “New Wave” movement in science fiction, and the “First Salvo” by science fiction’s “Old Guard” in maintaining its traditional literary values. By staying firm to the crisp, straightforward writing style that the genre had long been known for and providing a storyline that is a heir to the pioneering tradition in American literature, Anderson offers an effective counter to the excesses of the New Wave, although this does not mean he avoids literary flourishes. The passages used to explain the novel’s science not only avoid the dryness usually (and more often than not, incorrectly) associated with the hard science sub-genre but sometimes rise to the level of poetic vividness, approaching the language used by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles and other stories to impress the reader with that elementary Sense of Wonder regarding both the majesty of the cosmos. A frequent error made even by those who consider themselves fans of the genre is that hard science fiction is defined by the amount of scientific detail accumulated in the plot, and the degree to which the author explains the science behind it. A good hard SF story may do so but it can also be a fatal mistake, if the writer forgets to provide a compelling story or characters, or if the detail is ruined by one or more errors. Hard science fiction instead focuses on scientific realism, and finds a way to integrate the details and explanation in a non-obtrusive way, without letting them interfere with the essential elements of any good story. Truly great hard science fiction goes beyond escapist entertainment and makes science itself a theme for further thought and discussion. Possibly because of his right-of-center politics or his old-fashioned writing style, likely both, the masterful thematic profundity of Tau Zero and other Anderson works when it comes to the relationship between science and both societies and individuals has remained unexplored.

A friend has cited Tau Zero as having inspired him to become a physicist, with his motto being “the universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be.” This adage not only summarizes the prevailing world-view of hard SF, but Anderson’s own personal and political beliefs as well. Anderson considered himself to be a Libertarian politically, but much of his fiction and essays also display a deep and abiding cultural conservatism, in the sense that he was concerned with the preservation of both historical memory and those institutions and values key to the healthy development of civilization: science, reason, free enterprise and a sense of duty and chivalry. One of the first generation of science fiction writers to have grown up with the original printing of Campbell’s Astounding and its stable of authors, he was also one of those most directly influenced by the writing of Robert A. Heinlein. Like Heinlein, Anderson started out on the Centre-Left, (his early stories “Un-Man and “Sam Hall” are deft satires of McCarthyism and the John Birch mentality), but started moving rightward as the Fifties themselves moved onwards. Tau Zero, like many of Anderson’s later novels (from Orion Will Rise to A Harvest of Stars as well as the novella “Goat Song”) is not only pro-science but pro-civilization, standing directly against the leftist politics and deep cultural pessimism of the New Wave as well as the irrationalism and anti-science attitudes of New Age thinking, which had also lamentably infiltrated the SF community (Anderson was NATIONAL REVIEW’s science fiction critic during this time and he wrote a particularly damning critique of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods for the magazine the same year Tau Zero was published). Just as the laws of science are the same regardless of their frame of reference, so are the laws of human nature; certain rules of political economy and social decorum must continued to be maintained in this Brave New World, in contrast to the “revolutionary” sexual and social attitudes that were supposedly sweeping the country and whose depiction had become commonplace in the genre. Despite the fact that his multinational dramatis personae lives under a world government dominated by Sweden, American-style liberal democracy and free-market economics have ultimately won out (a possibly satirical touch, given the way so much of the American intelligentsia was infatuated with Swedish-style socialism and pacifism at the time), and it is strongly suggested that this is a positive means of maintaining a balance of power in this brave new world, just as the spaceship tries to maintain physical balance itself through the journey. The New Wave movement in science fiction was deeply rooted in revolutionary political and social movements of the time, that sought to “break down barriers” and reform the culture along the lines of Utopian thinking. Early on in Tau Zero, there is the suggestion that the crew of the Leonora Christina will attempt a new community based on free love but the circumstances of their journey as well as of human nature itself prevents it from emerging. At the end, the ship survives the end of this universe and enters a new one through a second Big Bang, but it is strongly implied that the laws of this new universe will be no different than those of the last, just as the the ship’s crew will not only re-perpetuate the human race in this Brave New Universe, but re-establish civilization and the laws that keep it stable and functioning. The universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be. And it will continue to be so, onwards, to the end of time.