Everything Is Nice

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

‘A Worm In The Well’ by Gregory Benford

with 17 comments

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.

Quality: **
OOO: **

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.

Written by Martin

22 January 2013 at 14:22

17 Responses

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  1. “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.

    And such a common one. A near-obsession with me at the moment is the fact that complex urban societies existed for many thousands of years without the use of money as we know it today. And that the current ideas of a baseline economic individual, of ‘pure’ ownership as a fundamental state, are recent and unstable.

    I think Sf writers have to understand all the ways that people have been, to image the ways they might be. Instead so many of them seem to be trapped in a propaganda bubble, that the way we are now is the only way we ever have been or could be. It depresses me so profoundly, and it’s part of the reason i can barely read a lot of modern SF..

    Sorry, I said it was a near-obsession. I think failure of imagination puts it in a nutshell, but it is a willful failure of the privileged.


    22 January 2013 at 14:51

  2. One of the passages I didn’t quote is this one:

    Unless one envisions a society with limitless wealth (say, by matter duplication using the transporter, that Star Trek staple), there will always be limits. And the sad lesson of most advanced societies is that they get fat and lazy. Both anarchist and libertarian societies may avoid this, because they aren’t top-down socialist. But nobody knows that, because they haven’t been tried.

    So, on the one hand, nobody knows; on the other, Benford knows and it wouldn’t work.


    22 January 2013 at 15:06

  3. I really am enjoying these posts. Obviously I agree with almost everything you write here, so I will pick on this sentence:

    “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 it completely irrelevant? It probably was in the Nineties, but a book like McAuley’s The Quiet War has been discussed as space opera, and that’s a very near-future-nuts-and-bolts piece of work.


    22 January 2013 at 15:09

  4. I’d say it is irrelevent for Benford’s purpose which is to invalid space opera. You are right that it isn’t irrelevent to a broad discussion of space opera. If I was editing a collection of space opera criticism, I’d definitely want a chapter on the intersection between hard SF and space opera. What I’m frustrated with in this anthology are the attempts by hard SF writers (abetted by the editors) to assert the primacy of proper hard SF over silly space opera. There is definitely space for a story like ‘A Worm In The Well’ in this book but it needs to be more sympathetically integrated into the over all discussion.


    22 January 2013 at 15:24

  5. (Disclaimer: I have not read the Benford essay.) Does he mean strong leadership by a NASA-style agency that plans a space programme in defiance of the market as if it were a command economy?

    Richard Baker

    22 January 2013 at 15:24

  6. I’m betting Steve Baxter would be surprised to find himself bracketed as a neo-con Randian right-winger.

    And ‘Macleod is all over the board’ strikes me as unfair; or more likely, as evidence that Benford is innocent of the political opinions of people who might be described as left libertarians.

    Adam Roberts

    22 January 2013 at 15:32

  7. Rich: Well, have a look at the end of the essay but basically he equivocates. He quotes Zubrin approving before saying that “this is a neat way to summarize the agenda of an entire culture: the space frontier revolutionarie”. But he doesn’t actually claim allegiance to this culture and the essay ends on a quote from JFK on the Apollo programme.

    Adam: It is a charmingly reductive view of politics. Hamilton writes space opera therefore must be left wing whereas Baxter writes hard SF so must be right wing.

    As for MacLeod, well, there is a lot that could be said there but, briefly, I’d say it was six of one, half dozen of the other. That is, if you asked me if MacLeod demonstrated a consistent, coherent political philosophy through his novels, I’d say no. But equally, if you asked me if I thought Benford understood the subtleties of MacLeod’s politics as advanced through his novels, I’d also say no.


    22 January 2013 at 15:41

  8. “This calls into question whether advanced socialist societies could plausibly support grandiose space-operatic futures.”

    …because space operatic futures are just *bursting* out of our existing late-stage capitalist societies.

    Jonathan Mitchell

    22 January 2013 at 17:51

  9. Responding to your 15:24 comment, Martin – I’d like to see what a volume on space opera edited by you would look like.

    Liz Bourke

    22 January 2013 at 21:58

  10. There really ought to be no shame in using ‘American’ in a pejorative sense when discussing comprehension and contextualization of the term ‘socialism.’ The word has been utterly degraded and appropriated over here, semantically jackhammered into a placeholder for “anything I don’t like or understand that takes place Somewhere Else.” The way it changes meaning and implication from one paragraph to another within Benford’s essay is absolutely par for the course– it’s unexamined solipsism but the poor guy thinks it’s hard, self-evident fact.

    What passes for the American public discourse on ‘socialism’ can be pretty directly correlated to increased liquor consumption in those of us who occasionally visit other countries, I think. *takes a drink*

    Scott Lynch

    22 January 2013 at 22:09

  11. Benford is a seventysomething guy from Alabama who moved to San Diego for grad school in 1965. He’s been part of the southern California hard SF-fandom-military-industrial-consultant scene pretty much from day one. The stew of right-wing politics and mediocre SF that swirled within a handshake or two of Jerry Pournelle in the 1970s and 1980s? Benford was always in that crowd, even if he wasn’t as obviously a creepy fascist wannabe as Pournelle.

    Actually, in fairness to Benford, he’s so much less bad than he could be. Yeah, he’s very blinkered, and in (sigh) a particularly American sort of way. Yeah, he’s a winger who’s still fighting the Cold War and dreaming of a Stanley Kubrick high modernist future in space that’s been dead as Elvis for the last 40 years. And yeah, he’s got that whole hard science guy “my opinions are actually FACTS” thing going on, with an additional lacquer of Campbellian “I understand the way the world works!” crankiness. But considering where he’s coming from, and who he’s been hanging around with? Wow, wow, he could have been so much sores. I mean, let’s face it — while there are guys born in Depression-era Alabama who grew up to be wise, cosmopolitan citizens of the world (E.O. Wilson comes to mind), it’s not the way to bet. And while hanging around with Jerry Pournelle probably did nothing for his mental or moral development, at least he didn’t make a career out of writing milSF wank-fantasies about machine-gunning stadiums full of his political opponents. Context is everything.

    Doug M.

    Doug M.

    22 January 2013 at 22:52

  12. Perhaps someone should point out to Benford that the Apollo programme was in effect a socialist programme. Capitalism hasn’t actually put a single human being in space yet, though it did manage a wheel of cheese.

    While a lot of US near-future hard sf is built on the myth of the entrepreneurial wildcatter being first to exploit space, that model doesn’t carry across to space opera. In space opera, the polities are large, entrenched and long-lived – and capitalism is too unstable a system for such polities to survive over such huge periods. Which, politically, forces you to the far right or the far left. Except the vast majority US sf authors can’t imagine anything left of centre…


    23 January 2013 at 08:25

  13. Liz: Well, I’m always open to commissions. It’s just a shame since there there is so much scope here and Hartwell and Cramer have the clout to have made the definitive book on the subject. Instead, the fact they’ve made a dog’s dinner of it means that definitive book is now less likely.

    Scott: It is kind of you to give me a pass but I still feel bad about tarring all Americans with that brush and wouldn’t want to be contributing to elevating your alcohol levels.

    Doug: I do give Benford points for being less bad than he could be and his reward is this engagement. I wouldn’t have written a detailed post like this on one of Pournelle’s screeds.

    It’s been a while since I read it but Timescape impressed me and I’ve liked some of his short fiction. He is that rarest of beasts, a hard SF writer who can actually write. I would like to see more of these. So I do hold him to a higher standard and I do despair when his non-fiction reveals him to be an idiot.


    23 January 2013 at 10:42

  14. Is this the Hartwell/Cramer anthology that snarks about Brian Aldiss’ Galactic Empires anthology from the 19(70s, I think)? I’d be curious what you thought about the Aldiss.

    James Davis Nicoll

    24 January 2013 at 19:42

  15. There is not much snark but they are frustrated that “Aldiss’s redefinition of space opera collapsed all adventure forms into merely varieties of space opera and they are since then usually indistinguishable in SF discussions”. That is to say that once again, Hartwell and Cramer’s preferred narrative runs contrary to reality. The only snark they manage is a reference to the “literary politicians of the British New Wave” as if they themselves were not such politicians.

    As for the Aldiss anthologies – there is also Space Opera (1974) – I will certainly pick them up if I ever come across them, if only for his essays. It is another missed opportunity that none of them (or, indeed, any other non-fiction) could be re-printed here.


    24 January 2013 at 20:28

  16. […] You can read the full post here – but really you should be reading the […]

  17. […] 2011) – One of my rare reviews for the blog: I liked it. (Up four places from last year.) 4) ‘A Worm In The Well’ by Gregory Benford – Boo to Gregory Benford and his stupid ideas about economics, politics and space opera. 5) […]

    Five | Everything Is Nice

    28 September 2013 at 12:47

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