‘A Worm In The Well’ by Gregory Benford
This appears to be Benford’s attempt to write a Captain Tabitha Jute story. He isn’t very good at it. His quirky ship TALKS IN CAPITALS and annoys his feisty heroine but I use the word ‘feisty’ advisedly since it conveys the pro forma manner in which he attempts to make her roughly real. What Benford is good at – and clearly has much more interest in – is writing hard SF. In this instance, he even includes a diagram showing how a negative mass object can cause light deflection. It is unnecessary for the story and, I would suggest, orthogonal to the concept of space opera.
The editors note that “Benford is developing a novel in this setting”. Did this happen? I can’t find any reference to it, although he did publish another short story, ‘The Worm Turns’, set in the same universe. That story is collected in The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. I feel a horrible need to read that book too.
Hartwell and Cramer have cannibalised their previous Benford introduction from The Ascent Of Wonder so we get to once again boggle at their description of him as “the first among the hard science fiction writers to have mastered and integrated Modernist techniques of characterization and use of metaphor.” But we also get quotes from his “recent contribution to the New Space Opera discussion” which is “an essay on space opera and economics”. I’m quoting the introduction directly since that is all the reader is told; the editors don’t bother to mention that the essay is entitled ‘The Real Future Of Space’ and can be found in the Summer 2004 issue of the fanzine Challenger. Now, I knew it would be wrong to expect sensible literary criticism from Benford but even forewarned, this essay is pretty startling. Take, for example, this eye-catching paragraph which Hartwell and Cramer describe as “poking at the new British enthusiasm”:
The British have acquired a taste for the recent style of space opera – note Ian M. Banks’ series, Ken Macleod, Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty, Peter Hamilton’s popular mega-scale space operas, and more recently Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross – all working with futures fragrant of gargantuan techno-sizzle. Interestingly, all these authors and futures are somewhat vaguely socialist. In this they contrast with the sober, often nostalgic near-future looks at the spaced program by Stephen Baxter, notably Titan.
Benford is writing 17 years after Consider Phlebas and 14 years after Take Back Plenty so this British enthusiasm isn’t exactly what I’d describe as new. The editors do at least ensure they spell the names of the authors under discussion correctly, although bizarrely they excise the mention of Greenland. But the substance – my god, the substance. Even though Benford hedges his bets with “somewhat vaguely”, the idea that the work of these authors can be badged as socialist is barking. Peter F Hamilton is not apolitical but he certainly isn’t a fucking socialist. Is it something they put in the water over there?
Having snagged myself on this passage, I went and read the whole thing. The main problem is that it is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding:
Yet space opera boasts giant spacecraft and huge space colonies. Who pays for them?
Another way to pose the problem is, what would a viable, economic space program look like at the end of the 21st century?
No, that isn’t another way of posing the problem; there is a yawning chasm between the two scenarios. Space opera is a genre of faster than light travel, free energy and ancient alien technology, it positively revels in Clarke’s Third Law. Benford completely ignores this and so he spends the majority of the essay on a wild goose chase concerning the mechanics of near future space expansion. Interesting stuff in its own context but irrelevant to a discussion of New Space Opera. Is this just the myopia of a hard SF “partisan” (as the editors describe him) who truly believes that “tennis with the net up” is the only game in town? That is certainly plausible but there seems to be something else going on here, namely a vestigial fear of the Evil Empire.
In order to understand Benford’s critique of British space opera, you need to understand his politics and he isn’t shy about sharing his views: “In some ways, popular socialist thinking parallels Creationism.” This is a pronouncement of Godwinesque proportions coming from a scientist. Of course, socialism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Here he is explicitly talking about Soviet-style command economies: “the belief that advanced societies must come from top-down direction – often, in practice, from a sole master thinker, the Chairman-for-life so common in totalitarian states.” I’m not sure I would describe that as current popular thinking but it is helpfully indicative of how little Benford knows about the subject; if you want sophisticated political analysis, you aren’t going to find it here.
As you might expect, he is setting up this strong definition of socialism in order to knock it down and there follows the traditional criticism that “markets provide far greater information flow than do top-down, directed economic systems”. This section is piously and patronisingly introduced with the words: “In politics, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But everybody is not entitled to their own facts – especially not in economics.” And here is that key ‘fact’: “Money measures economic matters. Without it, we can’t see what works and what doesn’t.” It goes without saying that this is not a fact but rather a failure of imagination. Benford uses this “simple truth” to dismiss not just all socialist societies but also all post-scarcity societies without need of any further evidence. He does not appear to have grasped any of the implications of a post-scarcity society and certainly doesn’t explain what it could not “work”, perhaps because he believes that as a hard SF writer this “economic dodge” is beneath him.
So that’s step one, show socialism is bad – not for political reasons, you understand, but because of good, solid economic facts. In the world of hard SF, the dangerous political philosophy of socialism can be defeated with a slide rule. This means he can move onto step two: show that British space opera is socialist.
If you have read any of the authors Benford lists, you will know that none of them depict societies anything like the command economy societies that he criticises. In fact, despite setting up this strawman, he is happy to use far weaker definitions of socialism when it suits his purpose. For example, we are told that “real-world moderate, welfare-state socialism, as seen in Europe, can afford no grand space operas.” Even if we accept that dubious characterisation as true, it bears no relation to the “popular beliefs” he hinges his argument on. Socialism can, according to Benford, be entirely compatible with capitalism thus sweeping out from underneath him his sole argument against socialist futures. In fact, “somewhat vaguely socialist” turns out to cover pretty much everything:
Politics does not offer simple maps, but one should distinguish between the Banks/Reynolds/Stross pole and the Macleod pole. The BRS pole seems Libertarian/anarchist, and by Libertarianism I mean anarchism with a police force and a respect for contract law. Macleod is the closest thing to a true classical socialist, as in The Stone Canal. But even Macleod is all over the board. Though socialism was his earliest fancy, he experiments with multiple social structures. In later works he espouses variants of libertarianism and anarchism, and even occasional capitalism.
So from a blanket description of British space opera, Benford is actually only able to find one author who meets, even partially, his criteria. You will note that Greenland and Hamilton have mysteriously disappeared entirely, presumably because they both have capitalist settings. (This is a shame because it would have been nice to discuss Hamilton’s work since it is represents such a wonderful counter-example of the economic problems of capitalist space opera. A huge flaw of the Night’s Dawn trilogy – beyond the writing – is the translation of global trade to the galactic level, despite the vastly higher costs associated with it. Hamilton goes so far as to invent unique and highly valuable commodities that are planet-specific in order to balance the books.)
Yet despite blowing a hole in his own argument, he concludes with this revealing non sequitur: “The whiff of welfare socialism in these novels contrasts with the bright, energetic atmosphere.” I’ve managed to get through the whole of this post without using the word “American” but I feel I can hold back no longer. The welfare state is not fucking socialism and only an American could possibly think it was. Regardless of this, Benford has failed to point out where this whiff he smells is coming from. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the welfare state playing a major part in Alastair Reynolds’s space opera. And what on earth is that “contrast” doing in the sentence? Does Benford truly believe that welfare states are so dark and depressing that they crush the society? Not content with packing so much madness into a single sentence, he immediately doubles down with a further non sequitur: “This calls into question whether advanced socialist societies could plausibly support grandiose space-operatic futures.” The causal chain here that Benford believes to be self-evident is non-existent.
Which brings us to step three: show that British space opera is bad. With both of Benford’s premises in tatters, it is no surprise that his conclusion is unpersuasive. What is surprising is how spectacularly he manages to implode:
However odd the future will be, it surely won’t be a repeat; economics evolves. The leftish space operas of recent years have plenty of quantum computers and big, Doc Smith-style planet-smashing weaponry, but the hard bits of real economics they swerve around. Maybe because they haven’t any real answers, or aren’t interested. Opera isn’t realism.
It isn’t realism? Well, no shit. I’m glad that Benford has finally noticed that space opera isn’t simply hard science fiction and his whole enterprise is therefore deluded. But what is truly astonishing is the lack of self-awareness in the previous sentences. He tells us that “economics evolves” despite the fact he has spent the whole essay arguing the opposite: that capitalism is the pinnacle of economic evolution and that no other model can compete with it. This means he manages to criticise the authors both for exploring alternative economic systems and not exploring alternative economic systems. A nice trick. It also makes it pretty rich for him to describe those individuals taking an active interest in economics as uninterested when he is the one with the ideological blinkers down. You can certainly describe MacLeod as “over the board” but uninterested in economics? I don’t think so.
And, on that bombshell, Benford gives up on space opera and instead focuses on the “real future” of space. This is obviously his true interest. He concludes with an exhortation that “staying the course will require leadership” because the essay has morphed entirely into being about the US space programme.