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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’ by Gregory Benford

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This, the first introduction to The Ascent Of Wonder, is a quite remarkable piece of writing: it is zealous to the point of bigotry, actively affronted by the work it precedes and enough to put you off Gregory Benford for life. It starts with a pat on the back for the brilliance of all hard SF writers. He then moves on to discussing what hard SF is not:

The hard sf aesthetic goals may still occupy the centre of the field – though much recent sf has returned to the old styles, in which scientific accuracy and worldview are subordinated to conventional literary virtues of character or plot, style or setting. Alas, in this sense hard sf may be a paradigm more often honoured in the breach than not. (15)

Alas! Those pesky conventional literary virtues… There will be much more of this sort of thing later but for now he continues:

Still, seeking its cachet, some have tried to appropriate the hard sf name for any narrative which nods however slightly toward science at all. (J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin and Gene Wolfe, for example, do not feature on the hard sf fan’s list, but they have been enlisted in the corps by some.) (15)

It is a wonderfully disengenuous bit of writing. Who are these “some”? Are they, in fact, David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, the editors who have included two stories by each of these writers in this very volume? What Benford is essentially saying he is: Hartwell and Cramer have invited me to write this introduction to their hard SF anthology but they are talking rubbish and glory-hunters to boot.

But if these writers aren’t hard SF, what is it? He does seem to mostly define it in opposition to soft SF and match these directly to the respective disciples of science. Thus he can claim hard SF as the heart of the genre because the central images of hard SF – “spaceship, glittering future city, time machine, alien world” (16) – are also the central images of the genre. He will later concede that time travel is a bit dubious but there is nothing inherently hard about any of those things, unless Benford is rushing to embrace Flash Gordon as an exemplar of hard SF. He seems to have confused physics with physical. For someone obsessed with facts and who thinks fiction is “lies” there is a lot of this sort of muddy thinking and throwaway generalisations. For example: “It often seems more worldly and less wishful than the “soft” fiction based on the social sciences.” (16) Worldly is not usually the first term that springs to mind when one thinks of hard SF. To be honest, I’m surprised he didn’t just come out and say “manly”.

In the second section of the introduction, ‘Keeping The Net Up’, there is actually some interesting stuff about hard SF as a literature of constraint as well as discussing its history and identifying Hal Clement’s Mission Of Gravity (1953) as the first work of hard SF. Even this is marred by another throwaway, that New Wave’s “greatest effect may have been to make hard sf into a recognised opposite” (17). This history and attempted critical defense – complete with further digs at New Wave (was this really published in 1993?) – continues in sections three and four. It is the fifth and final sections, ‘Intersections’, which is the most impressive though, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It opens:

How does hard sf sit in the recent cataloguing of literature by critics – structuralist, postmodern, deconstructionist, etc? (21)

Recent? Benford doesn’t even know what he is talking about here; presumably post-structuralism is the bogeyman he is aiming at (I like that “etc” too). Obviously, this ignorance doesn’t stop him from attacking his imaginary target for the next couple of pages. In its hungry adoption of anti-literature cliches, the introduction reads like a parody of an rec.arts.sf.written poster. I’ve always liked Benford’s fiction so it is a shame to discover he is an idiot. Far from being worldly, his hard SF plays up to every stereotype of an SF fan going. The whole thing is probably best summed up by one unintentionally hilarious anecdote:

Heinlein once skewered me about the freezing point of methane, and I was mortified. (18)

Says it all really.

Written by Martin

3 February 2010 at 16:02

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  1. […] ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’ by Gregory Benford ‘On Science And Science Fiction’ by Kathryn Cramer ‘Hard Science Fiction’ by David G Hartwell […]

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