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The Best of Gregory Benford Hardcover – July 31, 2015
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From the Inside Flap
This is a monumental collection of thirty-eight Gregory Benford stories, including some of the best science fiction of the last fifty years, chosen from the more than two hundred he has published to date: At the end of the 1960s, Benford expanded his novella Deeper than the Darkness, to become his first novel of the same title in 1970. He hit his stride in the 1970s, making his reputation with stories such as Doing Lennon and In Alien Flesh. By the end of that decade he had written In the Ocean of Night, the first of his impressive Galactic Center novels. He entered the 1980s a Nebula Award-winner for his classic novel, Timescape. That decade continued with the impressive stories Relativistic Effects and Exposures, the novel, Against Infinity, and ended with Matters End and Mozart on Morphine. By the middle of the 1980s he had also taken the leadership position of spokesman for hard science fiction, and contended with the rising cyberpunk reformers of hard SF. He has remained the most articulate defender of science's role in science fiction to this day, and perhaps the most literate and literary of its writers. In the 1990s, by now an acknowledged master of hard science fiction, he became more playful in some works, in particular stories such as Centigrade 233, a riff on Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451, and Zoomers, a dot-com bubble superman fantasia, while still holding to the center with the majority of his writing, completing his long series of Galactic Center novels and even writing in Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe.That playful thread became central after the turn of the millennium, with shorter satirical pieces originally published in Nature, such as Applied Mathematical Theology and Reasons Not to Publish. But he still wrote the innovative stories Bow Shock, Mercies, and The Sigma Structure Symphony and in the second decade of the new century embarked on a major collaboration with Larry Niven, in the novels The Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar.We have here a series of snapshots of a moving target, a writer who has been growing and changing for decades, extending his art, and the art of science fiction writing. Benford continues building himself challenging structures to write in with two story series in progress that may emerge as major works. He's not slowing down. But for the record we now have this book, a permanent chronicle of a major career. Six decades so far.
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"Gregory Benford, professor of astrophysics at U.C. Irvine, is the most extreme case of the genuine scientist who writes science fiction.
THE BEST OF GREGORY BENFORD (Subterranean, 616 pages, $40), edited by David G. Hartwell, brings together almost 40 of his 200 stories. They're the best introduction you can find to how scientists think.
Take "social stress." What is the world's carrying capacity for human life, and are we near that limit? "A Desperate Calculus" opens with a couple, one in Africa, one in South America, sending each other flirtatious messages. She's a medic, he's a biologist trying to preserve genetic diversity in the rain forest. Just two lonely do-gooders, right? Wrong every way. The messages are coded; the natives' worst suspicions are correct. No, wrong again. What's happenning is only the least worst, but it's a solution to overpopulation.
Several other stories open amid vividly realized poverty in the Third World, which Mr. Benford—an Army brat who has lived everywhere—has seen more of than most. In ''Matter's End," penniless Indian physicists are studying protons in ancient mines, with results no one predicted.
This poverty jostles with visions of progress most of us have now despaired of. "Relativistic Effects" imagines in detail what operating a "ram-scoop" starship would be like—but from the viewpoint of the blue-collar guys who harvest the interstellar gas that fuels it.
Science is after all the unknown. You might find yourself deep in the kind of transcendental adventure that has always been the big pull of sci-fi: trying to understand math-genius alien whales, literally from the inside, as in ''In Alien Flesh." Or, in "Twenty-Two Centimeters," the inhabitants of a deep-frozen parallel Earth.
The odd thing is that, for all the chill of the situations, this collection is actually a ''heartwarming'' (to use an adjective Mr. Benford would scorn). He'd much prefer "clear-eyed." But the fact is, he remains an optimist. There's a solution for everything, if, but only if, you have the will and the skill to find it." --Tom Shippey
Mr Benford has and imparts knowledge and imagination.
However, be prepared for a melancholy sense of life. Hardly any of the stories shows humanity in a positive light.
Writing style in rambling - a lot of redundant verbiage.
Edited by David G. Hartwell
(Subterranean Press, July 2015)
Reviewed by Bob Blough
Gregory Benford is a great science fiction author.
He is first of all a science fiction author. Notoriously one of the brand of SF authors who deals in the realities of science. I believe he calls it “playing with the net up.” His stories are full of actual scientific possibilities even if he is working in the far future. Nothing that does not fit into scientific possibility is considered for his stories. But the crucial second part of this equation is Gregory Benford is a science fiction author. He is a literate, well-read author who knows not only how to write a good sentence but also how to make a sentence sing. He writes hard SF with the pen of a poet. That is what makes his works so enduring and masterful.
As an example, in an early story, “In Alien Flesh” he tries to describe an encounter with an alien with the first sentences:
“-green surf lapping, chilling-
Reginri’s hand jerked convulsively on the sheet. His eyes were closed.
-silver coins gliding and turning in the speckled sky, eclipsing the sun-
The sheets were a clinging swamp. He twisted in their grip.
-a chiming song, tinkling cool rivulets washing his skin-
He opened his eyes.”
The sheer poetic power in those lines is mesmerizing to me. More follows as we learn Reginri’s story of why he has these dreams. He has literally crawled inside an immense alien. The story is fantastic in the genre sense with completely unknowable aliens. How this is described by Dr. Benford is nothing short of masterful.
In my opinion, Benford has three major types of stories (which overlap often). One is the story of scientists. This kind of story usually revolves around scientists just a step beyond what is being discussed at the time of the writing. “Exposures” is an excellent example (and personally my favorite short story of his). An astronomer is compiling various plates of film taken at the Palomar Observatory into an order that makes sense. In so doing the astronomer discovers the impending end of the world. His search for answers is mirrored in his personal life, one that includes his son’s teacher who has cancer. Benford creates a warmly human man who discovers that the world will be ending much too soon and measures it with a woman whose life is ending much too soon. There is no major action -- no rallying the troops to change things. It is an elegiac story that ends in a church (even though the scientist is not a man of faith) where he and his son’s teacher experience the connectedness of all things.
So many of Benford’s early stories follow this pattern. In “Time’s Rub” the fact that some types of ancient pottery can be listened to as recordings is used to express the folly of humanity’s desire for remembrance. Or in the brilliant “Matter’s End” Benford posits the finding of the exact end of matter. The results, much like Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” create a very different reality. Other stories along these lines are “Bow Shock,” “A Desperate Calculus,” and “White Creatures.”
The second type of story Dr. Benford excels at are those of space and the alien. In these, he uses the science of our time to postulate what could be. His sense of poetry is most often applied in these stories. The already spoken of “In Alien Flesh” is an example. In “Redeemer,” he beautifully shows us a smaller craft coming alongside a gigantic ramscoop ship:
“The ramscoop vessel ahead was running hot. It was a long steel-gray cylinder, fluted fore and aft. The blue-white fusion fire came boiling out of its aft throat, pushing Redeemer along at a little below a tenth of light velocity. Nagara’s board buzzed. He cut in the mill mag system. The ship’s skin, visible outside through his small porthole, fluxed into its super-conducting state, gleaming like chrome. The readout winked and Nagara could see on the situation board his ship slipping like a silver fish through the webbing of magnetic field lines that protected Redeemer.”
Benford’s use of color and carefully chosen words makes this more than your average story about space. Another story, “Relativistic Effects,” is placed on a runaway generation starship (a la Tau Zero by Poul Anderson) using the main drive janitorial crew as his cast of characters. In it they observe great wonders wrought just by their ship’s passage:
“The ship itself, grown vast by relativistic effects, shone in the night skies of a billion worlds as a fiercely burning dot, emitting at impossible frequencies, slicing through kiloparsecs of space, with its glutinous magnetic throat, consuming.”
Others along these lines are: “Dark Sanctuary,” “World Vast, World Various,” and “A Dance to Strange Musics.”
Benford’s third type of story is of the “if this goes on…” variety. In “Freezeframe,” he tells a tongue-in-cheek story about work and family in the future. It is told, very cannily by Benford, in a monologue by a highly unpleasant man who feels entitlement to be his right. The story works so well because the voice is perfectly rendered. The man is unaware of his sense of privilege, his attitude towards others, especially women, and the fact that he, himself is a bore. In it he talks about the high tech needs of workers in the future and how that fast paced lifestyle may deal with the struggle of work vs. family. This one is very funny – and pointed, as well.
This type of story is well served by “Nobody Lives on Burton Street” (an idea that has, according to Dr. Benford’s afterword, been subtly used in riot control), “Doing Lennon” (which is probably his most famous piece of short fiction – and rightly so) and “A Life with a Semisent.”
Anther important factor to keep in mind while reading this collection is that Benford’s writing changed radically after 1989. David Hartwell mentions this in his introduction saying: “In the 1990s, by now an acknowledged master of hard science fiction, he became more playful in some works… That playful thread became more central after the turn of the millennium.”
I don’t know if playful is the word I would use. Benford’s works after 1989 are less passionate – not as full of his trademark beautiful writing. They are still excellent stories – based on hard SF concepts more along the lines of George O. Smith and Hal Clement, but what makes them singular creations of Gregory Benford is missing. Perhaps Dr. Benford gives us some idea of why this is in his story, “Mozart in Mirrorshades” from that cusp period. This is not an SF story at all, but an achingly realized account of Benford’s survival after an almost fatal burst appendix. In it he even mentions “White Creatures” (another story in this volume) by name saying he wrote it over ten years ago. But the line that struck me was:
“My fear of death was largely gone. It wasn’t any more a fabled place, but rather a dull zone beyond a gossamer-thin partition. Crossing that filmy divider would come in time but for me it no longer carried a gaudy, super-charged meaning. And for reasons I could not express a lot of things seemed less important now, little busynesses. People I knew were more vital to me and everything else seemed lesser – including writing. Maybe even physics.”
Perhaps this was a reason for the change in his later SF, perhaps not. So when you read these stories be aware that you will encounter two very different types of writing. Both are concerned with the same issues – scientists and their impact on earth, far future cosmological themes, and the alien – but there is a distinct dividing line which keeps the two separate. And while in the latter half of his career we are given excellent short fiction, the time travel (or, more truthfully, parallel universe) stories – “Mercies,” about killing past serial killers and “In the Dark Backward,” about visiting famous writers just before death – are good additions to that trope. Then there is the utter in-your-face horror of “A Desperate Calculus” in which the depredations of today’s world (overpopulation, destruction of ecologies, and rampant power in the hands of a moneyed few) are met by steel-hard truths. These and others are excellent works.
If you like your hard science fiction written in a plain, no-nonsense style, these latter stories will be for you. As for me, it is the intricate and beautiful stories of the early part of Benford’s career that beckon. In a story to commemorate the most poetic of SF writers – Roger Zelazny – Benford penned “Slow Symphonies of Mass and Time” in 1998. In it he tries to wed Zelazny’s beautiful prose with his own hard science fiction and while he nails some of the manner of Zelazny’s writing with admirable precision, he just doesn’t quite capture the elegant beauty that only Zelazny could envision – but then who could? But, I believe that Benford, in his early stories, had been doing that all along – marrying elegant prose with the science and in so doing became the poet laureate of hard science fiction.