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G R E G O R Y   B E N F O R D : Measuring the Future
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, January 2000)

Gregory Benford
    Photo by Charles N. Brown
 

    Gregory Benford's UCI webpage


Gregory Albert Benford was born January 30, 1941, in Mobile, Alabama, along with his identical twin, James. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from UC San Diego in 1967, worked at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory from 1967 to 1971, then joined UC Irvine, where he became a full professor of physics in 1979.

His first published story, ''Stand In'' (1965) won second place in a contest at F&SF. His first novel, Deeper Than the Darkness (1970, revised as The Stars in Shroud, 1978) dealt with alien contact. It was followed by the Heinleinian YA Jupiter Project (1975). A novelette collaboration with Gordon Eklund, ''If the Stars Are Gods'' won a Nebula in 1975; it went on to become the title piece of a fixup novel. Another fixup, In the Ocean of Night (1977), began his ''Galactic Center'' series, far-ranging SF novels including Across the Sea of Suns (1984), Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989), Furious Gulf (1994), and Sailing Bright Eternity (1995). Other important novels include Against Infinity (1983) and, with David Brin, Heart of the Comet (1986).


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But the novel which established Benford's reputation was Timescape (1980), winner of both a Nebula and a Campbell Memorial Award, combining near-future thriller with a detailed portrayal of scientists at work. It is still the most highly regarded of his books, which also include thrillers Artifact (1985), Chiller (as by Sterling Blake, 1993), Cosm (1998), and the forthcoming Eater. His short fiction has been collected in In Alien Flesh (1986) and Matter's End (1995). He has also edited anthologies, mostly with Martin Greenberg, and is a science columnist for F&SF. He was Guest of Honor at the 1999 Worldcon in Australia.

''The question most interesting to me at this ebbing of the century is, who's going to own the next one? At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a classic battle between H.G. Wells and Henry James. Although James had first been, when The Time Machine appeared in 1895, a great fan of Wells, they split decisively over whether the novel should concern what James called 'parlor games' or what Wells termed 'the prospect of the future.' James won that literary struggle and, in so doing, bequeathed to us a conventional literature that has little to say to the future. Meanwhile, it had unthinkingly conceded the future to the genre of science fiction which, by the end of this century, dominates the visual media. And ironically, it's still suffering from the Jamesian bias that fiction should be about parlors and bedrooms. The novel particularly, which is what most people mean by 'fiction,' because the conventional short story has almost faded from view. There are many more short stories published as science fiction or fantasy for money now, in English, than there are conventional short stories for money. A striking fact.

''I decided to write a Mars novel that was about my perception of the technical issues but also acknowledged that so far, we haven't adequately treated, in any of the excellent Mars novels by Ben Bova, Kim Stanley Robinson, Jack Williamson, Paul McAuley, Greg Bear, the very real danger and difficulty and discomfort of how Mars will be. It's going to make Antarctica look like a Sunday school picnic. A century ago, Antarctica was the big goal, and then, after people had crossed it, reached the pole, it got abandoned until the infrastructure of the Second World War made it possible to reach it routinely, with an improved naval and air capability.

''That's why the essential idea of The Martian Race is that the US and half a dozen nations establish a prize: $30 billion for the first successfully returned manned expedition to Mars that does a certain amount of scientific collecting and so forth. The idea opening the novel is that everybody believes this will be won by NASA. It's a way, essentially, of supporting NASA in an international sense. But then a big booster blows up, kills a bunch of astronauts, Congress turns tail as usual, and the government isn't going to go. A Ted Turner type realizes that treaty obligation of $30 billion still remains. There's no reason he can't win it, so he forms a consortium to do just that, and it kicks off a race for that prize, because the key idea is that whoever goes will control the media rights! And they'll make potentially more money out of people participating in the Martian adventure on a daily basis, through high-definition TV and the Internet, than the $30 billion payoff.

''But the idea I want to push next, and in fact I may use in a novel, is that the United States should make Siberia a Protectorate. Pay the Russians off a hundred, two hundred billion dollars and simply run Siberia in an ecologically responsible way. It's a frontier as large as the continental US, should be opened, will be opened, either responsibly or not, and we could use this to put the stamp of liberal western democracy on the ground in Asia. Because the next large ideological opponent of our western system will almost certainly have to come out of Asia, and I think it will come. The germinal societies like Singapore and communist Hong Kong may give us a mutant capitalism that is both virulent and efficient. This is a significant cultural danger.

''The 20th century was a battle over fascism, communism, and socialism, three big, fairly bad ideas invented in the 19th century. The winner and still champion now emerges: the 18th century! But there will be a challenge in this next century, and the best way to counter it is to have a large, economically expanding, pro-western administration of Siberia, the largest reservoir of raw materials and resources left on the planet. It would give us everything. There would be a whole new genre instead of westerns, they'll be called 'easterns.' It will be a raw place where a guy who's bored working a filling station in Pittsburgh can take off and make his own fortune. Barely 28 million people in an area the size of the continental US, most of which is south of the latitude of Alaska.

''I know SF is primarily valued for its special effects and gee-whiz elements, but that doesn't have to stay that way. That's why I have elected to try to work in television and movies as much as possible. Cosm is still under option at Fox. I've read a script, and it seemed decent. Who knows if it will still be under production a year from now?

''The best way for science fiction media to go is in small, exquisitely crafted films like Charly or Gods and Monsters a beautiful film, made for about two and a half million bucks, which earned over forty million. That's a better pathway than the big lollapalooza extravaganza exploding-world model and here the behemoth is surely the latest Star Wars film, which was the first time in the theater I've ever wished I had a hand remote control that had two buttons: 'Mute' and 'Freeze-Frame.' I would have liked to have looked at that movie and not had to listen to the plotline or the dialog.

''Eater, the novel I have coming out in the spring, is deliberately built on the mold of Cosm. It is about the entry of a black hole into the solar system, and there are a lot of unforeseen developments. It's not a thriller in the usual sense of a chase story. It keeps a number of the developments as the primary suspense points, rather than, 'Are these people going to survive? Will they get caught?' etc.

''There's an easy Darwinian explanation for what happens when you have too many SF writers. But I've always felt, as Hemingway said, that writing is inherently not a full-time occupation. I never saw why I had to give up science in order to write, or the other way around, so I didn't! I think most people should do that. It's very good that we have people who have, recently at least, known science directly Paul McAuley, Steve Baxter, Geoff Landis, Charles Sheffield on tap, because that gives an authenticity to science fiction which it sorely needs.''


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