Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring/Summer 2003

Artist: Wm. Rotsler


Others have traveled the world since our last issue. Here's the author of Timescape and The Martian Way reporting on his journey to


Gregory Benford
                                                                        copyright 2003 by Abbenford Associates.

        China – the name had beckoned to me for decades. Yet I put off going, largely because I was waiting for it to – well – improve. (The same is still true of the Middle East, alas.)

        As the Hong Kong University's conference loomed in late March, 2003, news came of SARS, which seemed to be an exponentiating plague, easily moving on moisture coughed out by the unsuspecting carriers. Scary. And Hong Kong was site of the first detections.

        Still, I was immortal, wasn't I? And we had planned for the conference and trip afterward for months. I had gone through a very rough year, marked by the deaths of my wife after a long bout with cancer, and of my father at age 90. Each had fought long, punishing battles. Mortality loomed. I needed a trip that would take me out of myself, and away from the importunings of phone and internet. I wanted to go, without knowing what I sought.

        So we duly flew, and Hong Kong was a delight--like Japan with the subtle style superheated by tropical moisture and breezes. The conference itself was on "techoscience and the future" so I talked about the coming world of smart cities and invasive technologies, all married to agile robots. Others winged into critical theory and politics and the best parts of the meeting were those devoted to food and drink and talk, as usual.

        Charles DeGaulle once said that China is full of promise and always will be. He implied that it would never get out of its vexed potential well, and he may yet prove right. But Hong Kong's bright commercial glaze belied the argument. Its exuberance denied passing problems like SARS. The conference attendees wore masks for the first day, including the group picture (quite funny), then abandoned them.

        The business at hand –- the thing I came for – was important to me. I wanted to know – to learn in person – that China was entering the "world of science fiction," that this place, vital to every plausible human future, was at last starting to bathe the rich stew of both hope and warnings that only SF can offer. I did my best to help stir the pot a little, and the local cooks put up with my advice, then returned to their own recipes. I can report it's simmering nicely.

        That job done, I could turn to the rest of the voyage.

        We sailed after the conference on a cruise up the coast, waving goodbye to the bright lights, big city, and wondering if the communist coast would be as gaudy. It wasn't. Shanghai tries hard – busy, bustling, but strangely subdued. Little neon glitter, though with a fine and stylish museum featuring ancient artifacts from a main branch of Earthling history. It was like Hong Kong without the polish, and with a pall of coal haze that hung like a persistent metaphor over the city and countryside. We may seek to constrain the energy needs of the developing world, but the coal haze of China refutes all arguments. They will run their motors and breathe their fumes, and to hell with the rest of us. What to do? Innovate. We had better innovate, and fast.


        SARS had made the government close all Internet cafes, so no information got in or out. tour guides claimed to know nothing of this, and when asked about population they regurgitated identical statistics and homilies. They penalize families with more than one child, withdrawing the socialist support net from the child, including health care.

        And it's crowded, yes. Everywhere that one might expect to see jobs done by machines, there instead labor teams of workers in loose cotton pajamas--digging ditches, sweeping streets with reed brooms. Construction projects are carried out by ant-like squadrons, swarming over great lattices of bamboo, laced with strap. About 70% of the work force farms, vs. 5% for the US. (The US produces more than China, and had 90% on farms in 1900.) There are few tractors, but many people digging and plowing by hand. Sad, really. One of them might be an Einstein, given the chance.

        Outside Shanghai, I saw two MIGs peel overhead in a loud, showoff roll maneuver. MIGs! Like seeing a dinosaur break from the brush, howling. Bought from the crumbling Soviet Empire back in the early ‘90s, I guessed. It felt odd to be without my daily diet of both the Los Angeles and the New York Times, dutifully consumed at the breakfast table over a pot of tea. What was going on? Iraq should have been a walkover, but was it?

        The Second Iraq War was raging, and I picked up a copy of the New China Times, the local English-language Pravda – and found that it used the same rhetoric, the same sur-realistic take on the news I was also getting on CNN by satellite. Iraqis had stalled the allied advance, said the China Times, and the international peace movement was forcing a negotiated end to the war. The state TV news took the same line, running only pictures of civilian casualties. I always appreciate local humor. At least our brainwashing is more subtle and varied. And you can still argue. Still.

        Then, surprise surprise, Baghdad fell. The story shot to the back of the paper and soon vanished altogether. No pictures of Saddam's statue falling. I wondered what the ordinary readers thought. But then, they know how to read the unwritten, just as in the old Soviet world.

        Beijing and the Great Wall were striking. The hills had that beautiful bulging curvature one sees in Chinese art, unlike any other landscape I know. Alas, many of the ancient shrines were destroyed in the Mao years. Mao's figure still remains in statues but more often on the face of comic watches, his hands pointing to the time. Instead, the latest Party Chairman beams from posters. In the street markets, commerce flows through tiny stalls of vendors. In Dalian the food markets had ranks of suggestive vegetables, some shaped for all the world like sexual appliances. Eating them would be a cross-cultural challenge, yes. Considering that they still use human sewage in their fields, even more so.

        In the ancient shrines and gardens some hint of the earlier world remain. In Wu Xi outside Shanghai a serene city block still held the essentials of a classic garden: Stone, water, bridge, pavilion. A hovering presence. But the city crowded around.

        And where were the birds? None in the farms, no herons to steal fish, no seagulls. They had either been squeezed out or hunted down, like the herons. This is what a denuded future would look like. Humans were the sole focus; the natural had vanished. I saw a rat scramble across a cobbled street and recognized it as my collaborator. And shivered.

        A thousand miles of Chinese coastline had gone by. Admiral Cheng Ho once sailed the same course while returning from the greatest expedition of all time… expecting accolades and a new world-age led by an outgoing China…. Only to find that his brief renaissance was over and a hostile Court would return to isolationist ways. They lost the world from loss of nerve.


        The garden in its presence was the first moment when I felt real contact with the Asia I remembered from the three years I had lived as a boy outside Tokyo. China had only tatters of it. But Japan lay ahead.

        Nagasaki was delightful – a smallish city, with a bomb memorial that held more atmosphere than the larger one at Hiroshima. We then sailed through the Inland Sea, dotted with wooded islands and humming with commerce as we drew into Osaka harbor. I had stopped paying much attention to the news by this time. The rest of the world seemed quite far away.

        The train to Kyoto was speedy and jammed. To arrive there and reach the traditional inn, a ryokan of some vintage, is a relish, surprisingly restful. The food was excellent, breakfast and dinner in your room in the old style. Since my boyhood I have liked sleeping on futons and eating in a geometrically perfect room of tatami mats. The Japanese sense of style is the world's sharpest minimalism. I'd greet aliens in one of these rooms, in order to make a guaranteed good first impression.

        We met old friends and fine members of the SF community there (Japan is already a member of the Civilization of SF) and saw the usual sights. I have been to Kyoto several times, but it never palls; perhaps it is the most impressive city I know. The cherry blossoms had opened the day we arrived, timing I had hoped for when booking half a year before. The famous Philosopher's Walk, a stream course running beneath bowers of impossibly lovely pink-white, was the most striking vista I had yet seen. Everyone turns out at this season, but somehow in the mild air the crowds did not intrude upon the mood. Wonderful, but there was more to come.

        The Zen retreat in northern Kyoto is modest, and the mottled walls of the Ryoan-ji garden holds a stillness that had been etched in me half a century before. A 31-meter long rectangle, 15 meters across, it can only be viewed close up and so no photograph can catch it. Lenses chop off corners or distort its flat gravel expanse through neck-cricking camera angles. Ancient stones set into the gravel loom like mountains, some surrounded with a skirt of moss. Raked lines in the gravel are straight in the broad expanses but circle the fifteen stones. A low, baked clay wall frames the garden, so that the rising stones and flat gravel can be seen only from the veranda of the Abbot's Quarters of the Zen retreat.

        I sat and studied. Perhaps it was important to the unknown creator that only a tantalizing fourteen of the stones could be seen from any one position. Perhaps it was significant that the number of stone islands, five, and the number of independent stones, two, were both prime numbers, and that the sum of them was seven, also a prime. And perhaps it was not, for the total number of stones in all was fifteen, not a prime. Did the designer intend this joke? Very Zen.

        The garden's appeal is intellectual, not sensual. Austere, barren, it makes you see what you wanted to, much as a desert landscape forces concentration through its spareness. I stared into it and a slight mist fell silently. Were the raked lines waves in a sea, currents in a river, the swirling patterns of iron filings around magnets? And the stones--mountain tops above clouds, the coils of a dragon arcing from the water, a tigress leading cubs across a treacherous river?

        There was no answer and never would be. It's a Zen koan made real, subversive of easy answers. The art of the void. Moving ghostlike around the eternal riddle of the garden was as hypnotic as staring into the flickering flames of a fire.

        After that, Tokyo was an anticlimax. Dinner with my publisher (who booked the whole restaurant for the night, I slowly realized as course after course arrived). The slick, stylish Ginza. A walk through the cacophony of the electronics district. A tour of the Honda robot center.

        The Asimo robot can see you, respond, walk smoothly beside you to a conference room, look where you point. Honda leases a dozen of them to high tech firms so they can introduce stockholder meetings and kick off sales conferences. People invariably treat it as a person, and it has a boy's voice, appropriate to its height. The Japanese are far ahead of the rest of the world in this because they come to the technology unburdened by a literature (especially SF) that sees robots as ominous and threatening. It was refreshing to meet one at last. I could not stop myself from embodying it--that is, reacting as if to a small, friendly boy with a high-pitched voice.

        But the garden, sublime and certain in its silence, stuck with me. A week in Hawaii spent diving and swimming did not alter my mood; indeed, it helped. I had come to some conclusions.

        Calamity and travel had *somehow conspired. Life narrowed to the essentials: look after your friends and yourself, and grab all the fun you can find. Continue your involvement in the world's future, but forget about your enduring legacy in that future world – a world that will be more Asian than we egotistical Westerners would like to contemplate. That may be a good thing. Anyway, Legacies take care of themselves.

                 Skip reading all the bad news in the newspapers, which was most of it, and thereby improve your digestion. Write off the past and don't dwell in the myriad possible futures. Live now. Love, friendship, fun: get 'em while they're hot.

        The trip had well paid for itself.



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