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Gregory Benford: Dynamic Control

Gregory Albert Benford was born January 30, 1941 in Mobile AL, along with his identical twin James. Their father was in the army, and they moved frequently. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a BS in physics in 1963, and earned his MS in 1965 and PhD in 1967 from UC San Diego. He worked at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory from 1967-71, then joined UC Irvine, where he was the youngest tenured professor in the California system. Meanwhile he was active as a SF writer and fan, helping, with Jim, to organize the first German SF convention while living in Europe in 1956. He published fanzine Void with co-editors including Jim, Terry Carr, and Ted White.

Benford’s first published story, ‘‘Stand In’’, appeared in F&SF in 1965. ‘‘If the Stars Are Gods’’, written with Gordon Eklund, won the Nebula Award in 1975. Other notable stories include Hugo and Nebula Award finalist ‘‘Doing Lennon’’ (1975); Nebula Award nominees ‘‘White Creatures’’ (1975), ‘‘Swarmer, Skimmer’’ (1981), ‘‘Newton Sleep’’ (1986), ‘‘Matter’s End’’ (1991), ‘‘Soon Comes Night’’ (1994), and ‘‘Dark Heaven’’ (2007); and Hugo finalists ‘‘A Snark in the Night’’ (1977) and ‘‘Immersion’’ (1996). Some of his short work has been gathered in collections In Alien Flesh (1986), Matter’s End (1995), Worlds Vast and Various (2000), and Anomalies (2012).

First novel Deeper Than the Darkness (1970, revised as The Stars in Shroud, 1978) was a Hugo and Nebula Award nominee in its original novelette form. That was followed by YA Jupiter Project (1975). He co-wrote Find the Changeling with Gordon Eklund (1980). Benford and William Rotsler wrote Shiva Descending that same year. Benford began his Galactic Center series with In the Ocean of Night (1977), which continued with Across the Sea of Suns (1984), Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989), Furious Gulf (1994), and Sailing Bright Eternity (1995). His breakthrough book was Timescape (1980), which won both the Campbell Memorial and Nebula Awards. Other novels include Against Infinity (1983), Artifact (1985), Heart of the Comet (1986, with David Brin), Chiller (1993, as by Sterling Blake), Cosm (1998), Eater (2000), Beyond Infinity (2004), and The Sunborn (2005). His newest novel is a collaboration with Larry Niven, Bowl of Heaven (2012).

Benford has edited anthologies (often with Martin Greenberg) and wrote a long-running science column for F&SF. He was Guest of Honor at the 1999 Worldcon.

Benford has won the UN Medal in Literature (1990) and the Lord Foundation award for scientific achievement (1995), among other science awards. He became a full professor of physics in 1979. In 2006 he became a professor emeritus, though he has not relaxed in retirement. He founded genetics company Genescient and continues to work as a researcher and to consult with various companies and government agencies (including DARPA).

His first wife Joan Abbe (married 1967) died in 2002. He married biologist and writer Elisabeth Malartre in 2006. He has two adult children from his first marriage.

Official website

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I decided I would have fun by writing a novel with my old friend Larry Niven, whom I met first in 1965. The idea was mine: I had always been fascinated by what Peter Nicholls calls Big Dumb Objects, and I began to think, what would a Big Smart Object look like? Dumb to me means that it’s neutrally stable. If you do nothing, it’s okay. Turns out Niven’s Ringworld is not neutrally stable – it will fall into the sun if you give it a nudge, but you can stabilize it with jets and so forth. I tried to think of a higher order of Big Smart Objects, so I thought of a Bowl of Heaven, which is an enormous structure that cups a star, reflects the sunlight back onto the star, generates a very hot spot with intense magnetic fields, and from that spot emerges a jet directed toward the bowl. The jet goes through the bottom of the bowl, where there’s a large opening called a knothole, and the jet powers the entire assembly forward in space. The jet pushes the star away. The star’s gravity pulls the bowl along. But it’s inherently unstable.

‘‘Humans, when they walk, are capable of dynamic stability or instability. Ours is a species that, tellingly, moves forward by falling and catching itself. That’s why very few animals ever use this strategy. Most of them are birds, and they’re not noted for their walking ability. Other primates can walk on two feet for short distances, but not long ways. We’re a very venturesome species: we walk on two legs – watch! Look! See! And we loom larger because of it.

‘‘The Bowl is going somewhere, and it’s vastly old. Bowl of Heaven is the first of two volumes. The whole thing is really a single novel, about the discovery of the bowl by a human starship. It was a lot of fun to make up this huge object and figure out how it might work. That’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve done a lot of calculation about this. I remember the thrill I had when I read Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. I thought, wow, this is science fiction with rivets!

‘‘The bowl requires continuous dynamic control, as they say in systems analysis. You’ve got to have a lot of confidence in yourself if you’re going to build a thing like this. You’ve got to have an agenda: what is the drive behind this object? Of course, you don’t find out in Bowl of Heaven. This is not a starship. It’s a ship that’s made from a star, so it’s a ship star. We find out in the next book what the hell is going on. It has a deep atmosphere with a smart film on top to keep the atmosphere in. To say the least, this is advanced engineering, not Engineering 101, and I enjoy doing all the head work. I wrote most of the book, and Larry added more ideas, plot moves, aliens – I wanted Larry’s advice because he invented the genre. I like Larry a lot, and I’ve always liked working with people. Scientists typically collaborate.”


“Many times I’ve had people say, ‘How could you do a full scientific career at the University of California and still write all these books?’

‘‘The method is that before I go to sleep in the evenings I spend about five minutes thinking about the problems I am working on – mathematical problems, scientific problems, narrative problems – and then I go to sleep. In the morning, I’ve trained myself to not open my eyes when I wake up. I just lie there and consider all the problems. About a third of the time, there’s an idea or even several that turn out to be very useful. Therefore, I’ve gotten all of this for free!

‘‘I decided to depict an alien which can voluntarily look at its unconscious and see what’s going on behind the scenes, for reasons that will be disclosed in the second volume. What made me think of it is: isn’t it odd that we don’t have ideas – ideas have us. They just occur to us. They come out of nowhere. Dirac, the theoretical physicist, told me once that he invented the Dirac equation by going for a walk and not thinking about the problem, and then when he was crossing a bridge in a field outside Cambridge, it all came to him. He went to a pub and got the menu and wrote down the equation on the back and ordered lunch and took the menu with him in case he forgot it.

‘‘Why is that process involuntary? How come you can’t open the unconscious and look at it? I try to see things from the evolutionary perspective: why did that evolve? Not being able to tell what you’re thinking: how can that be adaptive? But it is. I think the brain needs to be left alone to work. Every writer will understand this. To me that’s one of the most interesting things about human intelligence.”


‘‘I work in the morning, after breakfast – because I’m smarter in the morning, everyone is. You get stupid at night. That’s why all the high price advertisements are at night. The Nazis made a practice of always holding their rallies at night, because people are more easily persuaded, because they’re more stupid. Just knowing these basics about the mind can really improve your lot in life. I do almost all of my surfing or skiing in the afternoon, for that reason. I’m not good for anything else.”


‘‘Asimov said to me once that in informal questioning, he had found that half the scientists he met read science fiction as teenagers. I’ve been doing the same measurement for half a century, and the number is the same – it’s over half. I go to meetings of the American Physical Society, or even the CIA, and people come up with books for me to autograph!

‘‘Heinlein’s first rule is don’t lecture. Which he violated often, but he made the lectures interesting, and that’s the clue. If you will sit still for an entertaining lecture that’s vividly imagined, then fine. The didactic, I agree with Stan Robinson, is an essential part of science fiction. The whole culture of ‘no expository lumps’ ignores the fact that it’s a standard, useful fictional technique. Try to write War and Peace without breaking that rule. You can’t build a novel out of fist fights. Most change comes from inspiration, not perspiration. The best fiction invokes the great rule that you cannot tell the dancers from the dance.”


Comment from Jean Marie Stine
Time November 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Much tho it pains me to disagree with am esteemed friend like Greg, but in an mid1930s novel, Jack Williamson had a BSM large enough to encompass several stars and their planets headed toward our solar system, in the Cometeers. And I suspect some early Gernsback writer like Neil R. Jones was really the first to create a BDO.

Comment from Peter D. Tillman
Time November 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Nice interview!

Added to

Comment from James Brown
Time November 10, 2012 at 3:39 pm

I finished Bowl of Heaven and looking forward to the follow on – date?
P.S. I search for ET from my home built SETI station (www.SETI.Net). Now pointed at the Sun/Earth L4 point…

Comment from Gregory Benford
Time November 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm

James: We hope to have it out by Christmas 2013 or early winter 2014. Working hard on it now.
Jean Marie: Got me: forgot the cometeers. Maybe Jones was the first…I haven;t the courage to go reread that material again.

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