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Posts Tagged ‘gregory benford

‘A Worm In The Well’ by Gregory Benford

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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

‘Relativistic Effects’ by Gregory Benford

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It takes a few pages to find out what the relativistic effects of the title are and it took me those few pages to embrace the story. ‘Relativistic Effects’ starts as just a day in the office with blunt worldbuilding and a clunky future dialect. I thought I was faced with another competant man Miner of the Future story. But no, Benford is interested in peeling away the surface layer of the universe and looking at what is underneath, not just bashing up an asteroid.

And then it becomes clear what the context of this all is. Our sub-space miner is on a spaceship stuck in fifth gear, they are hurtling forward at almost the speed of light with no way of slowing down. Earth is five million years in the past. In their introductions, Hartwell and Cramer talk of the universe as antagonist being a hallmark of hard SF and it is perfectly demonstrated here. The weight of the implacable universe crushes the characters and turns what could have been another lump of coal into a diamond.

Quality: ****
Hardness: *****

Written by Martin

2 December 2010 at 10:04

‘Exposures’ by Gregory Benford

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A very hard, very dry story that was originally published in Asimov’s but has a tone more reminiscent of the New yorker. This does not necessarily make it a good story (one to admire with detatchment, perhaps) but it is certainly a welcome change.

Quality: ***
Hardness: *****

H&C end their introduction by stating: “Benford is the first among the hard science fiction writers to have mastered and integrated Modernist techniques of characterization and use of metaphor.” Which is just wow.

Written by Martin

24 March 2010 at 10:29

‘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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My long review of The Secret History Of Science Fiction, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (and previously mentioned here, is up now at SF Site. The introduction is blunt but to the point:

The Secret History of Science Fiction is a very good collection of short stories. It is not, however, a very good anthology.

It is a problem I’ve had more than a few times – the gap between the individual stories and overall of aim of the editor – and it is a problem I’m sure I will have again.

Speaking of which, for the next of my story by story reading projects I’m planning to read The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard SF, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. It is an absolute monster: just under 1,000 pages. It has three introductions, for God’s sake, one for each of the editors and a bonus one for Gregory Benford. Having read Paul Kincaid’s review of the anthology – in which he takes strong issue with the editors’ definition of hard SF – and sharing similar concerns to him, I suspect this will be another anthology which I find frustrated by its editors. We shall see.

I will start with Benford’s introduction later this week but the whole thing will probably take me until the end of the year.

Written by Martin

1 February 2010 at 16:14

‘Anomalies’ by Gregory Benford

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This recalls Timescape in both subject (scientific investigation) and location (Cambridge). An amateur astronomer discovers an anomaly with the moon and promptly informs the Astronomer Royal. Since he is refered to as Martin we are to assume the story is set in the present day. However, it exists in some sort of neverneverland of class caricature. The original discoverer of the anomaly is a doughty working class furniture maker who actually folds his cap in his hands before saying:

Me, I’m just a five-inch ‘scope man. Don’t care about much beyond the priority, sir.

Later he goes with the Astronomer Royal to see a don who serves them tea and “small sandwiches with the crust cut off” before “deftly opening a bottle of sherry”. (Incidently this don is described as a “post-postmodern philosopher” which is what exactly?) And in addition to all this it is told in a grating documentary style.

Quality: **
Shiftiness: ***

Written by Martin

10 May 2009 at 22:14

Posted in sf, short stories

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