Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2005-6

Chiming in with more of his unique perspective of the field is a consistent Chall pal with his wombmate along this time!

WHY DOES A  SCIENTIST
WRITE
SCIENCE FICTION ?

A speech by
Gregory Benford
at the UC San Diego class reunion of 1985, bringing together the first years of the physics students who attended the University when it was a graduate school.

INTRODUCTION by
James Benford
Beam and Plasma Research, Physics International, San Leandro, California

JIM: I’ve certainly known Greg longer than anyone else, since I was born ten minutes before him. He has been late to most things since. [laughter] He was also the first of our class to get his doctorate — four years; what was he running from? Or toward?

I will quickly try to tell you some things about what he has done since he was here, and perhaps some of the things he was doing clandestinely while he was here. Greg has run two careers of roughly equal magnitude — same order — and so I’ll try to give this talk in terms of those useful things in physics, the dimensionless ratios, considering his two careers — theoretical plasma physics and the writing of science fiction, and some science fact.

He began writing when he was about twelve years old. He wrote short stories. I am probably the only person who has ever read them. They were really terrible! — and he wrote a lot of amateur things through high school, etc. He sold his first short story in 1966, when he was here, a graduate student. He won a prize in a contest. Then he began to write other very short stories. His natural medium in that time was the post card, I think. [laughter]

 

You know being taciturn and brief has its advantages when you are trying to get something across. It is helpful in physics papers. I wish more people would follow that. When he graduated from UCSD, he went to Livermore. On the physics side he turned out a lot of work on different subjects, and then escaped from there to UC Irvine, where he has been for thirteen years and is full professor now. He has a bunch of graduate students and runs experiments as well as theory. His specialty in physics is radiation processes, primarily of astrophysical origin, galactic jet phenomena and collective interactions, beam plasma interactions for radiation processes.

Now, while he was doing all this, of course, he was running his writing career as well. When he moved up north, he produced his first novel, and I want to show you some of his work. Here is the cover of his first potboiler novel, Deeper Than the Darkness, which is a novelization of a novelette which was really rather good, but I must say the novel really wasn’t very good. But, what the hell, it was a start! In those days, you got $1500 for a novel. The standard advance for novels has gone up since that time somewhere between one and two orders of magnitude — at least for Greg, which is very helpful to him, living on only a UC professor’s salary. He continued and wrote a series of books that I’ll try to describe very quickly.

He wrote one juvenile — now called young adult novels — Jupiter Project — which, for those of you who know science fiction, integrated with Heinlein’s future history series and dovetailed with some of those characters and situations. These books are mainly texts that educate people about technology and the process of growing up. He is very interested in that, and some day he’ll make it! [laughter] He continued to write novels. He wrote a very successful novelette with Gordon Eklund which they expanded into a novel, If the Stars Are Gods ­ the story of a visit to the solar system of a race of beings that consider stars to be gods and that something lives inside stars. And it contains some very interesting depictions of alien psychology. Greg is very interested in alien psychology, and he has a book of his short stories coming out next year called, In Alien Flesh, which sounds a little risqué. [laughter]

He has also been very interested in his own past. Some of you may know that we were born on the coast of Alabama; our origins are there and a lot of our conditioning, I suppose. We were only six years old when we left, but we have gone there often and he has written a novel which springs from those southern origins. It is actually set on Ganymede, called Against Infinity. This is his Faulkner novel and you can read a lot of Faulknerian things in it : concern about community and the evolution of the person in a southern type community.

Now I said I was going to introduce some dimensionless variables, to get some idea of what the ratio is between his accomplishments in both fields. If you take, for a rough order of magnitude estimate, the ratio of scientific papers to short stories, for example, the ratio is about one. There are about 50 of each, which is a lot of writing. Another ratio would be the number of novels divided by the number of thesis students. That again is about one, each number being about ten. So you can see that these fields are in some kind of rough ratio to one another.

He has written a great deal: ten novels with another one on the way. The most recent one, that very few people here have read yet — it has only been out a few months but selling very well in hardback — is Artifact, which is not a science fiction novel, but in fact a novel about archaeology. It’s about the discovery of a very interesting artifact in a Mycenaean tomb and it has a very, very interesting piece of physics in it about what that artifact really is. It harkens back and eventually is elaborated in terms of the most ancient legends in western civilization. I think it is a very good book for physicists because it has a very interesting physics question in it, and a lot of political commentary about Greece. Finally, I want to mention the book that everybody knows about, Timescape. I’ll show you the cover in the English edition, which, if you can get it, is the best one to read because it is much better printed. Timescape has been a very successful novel. Its origin was a paper in Physical Review [Physical Review D 2, 263, 1970], “The Tachyonic Antitelephone,” concerning the causality violation which follows from the assumed existence of tachyons. They had a tough time getting it published because it basically said that all the theory being done on tachyons was worthless. They had to get Edward Teller to intervene with the Physical Review editor to get it published.

Following that, the novel had its conceptual origins in a short story, “Cambridge, 1:58 AM,” which actually quoted a substantial portion of the Phys. Rev. paper. Conservation of wordage! The idea kept working around in Greg’s head until he finally approached my wife, Hilary Foister Benford, and suggested they write a novel together, considering time travel as an attempt to modify the past from an ecologically destructive future. She wrote some of the English parts of it, and he wrote the UCSD parts of it, and after a years and a lot of work, they came out with Timescape.

It has since been published in six languages, four editions in English — one English, American, Canadian, Australian ­ it’s a big language! — six more languages and about somewhere between 250 and 300 thousand copies in print; it continues to sell very well. I think that it is, as this cover says, “the most convincing portrayal of working scientists” that I have ever seen. Perhaps it convinces me because it is set in the early 1960s at UCSD, but also because it contains all those sociological intrigues that are never referred to in the journals, but which determine the trajectory of many scientific careers. I found it a wonderful book, although both Greg and I are portrayed negatively in it. I thought that was funny. And a lot of people here in this room are mentioned there.

So, Greg is going to talk today about, “Why Does a Scientist Write Science Fiction?” and I suspect the answer is basically, why not?

 

GREG: Thanks, Jim. My favorite wombmate, yes. [laughter]

I remember very well the days when I was first here at UCSD as a graduate student. What struck me so strongly was how much communication there was among the graduate students and, even better, between the faculty and the graduate students. Somebody remarked that the principal job hazard of being a student at San Diego was getting sun burned tongue — because everyone talked so much. I found it such a fascinating place that it stuck in my mind, and I eventually wrote a whole damn novel about it. It had struck me, in fact, that La Jolla was a unique place. It seemed to be invested heavily in the future — using, of course, as we all do, the taxpayer’s dollars. Also, La Jolla was about the future as vision more than any place I had ever been — particularly if you come from Alabama, which is fundamentally about the past..

Another place basically about the past is Cambridge, England. The reason I chose the strategy in Timescape ­ based half in UCSD in 1962 and 1963, and the other half set in Cambridge in the late 1990’s — was to talk about the difference between the two societies. The novel is based on the experience I had in Cambridge when I was there in 1976, on sabbatical leave. One evening I went to dinner at King’s College -- the whole high table ritual, with the cracked walnuts and the port wine and the obsequious behavior. Someone told me a story I have never forgotten. They had gotten a large bequest to the College and were trying to decide how to invest it. The bursar said, “Certainly we ought to invest it in property, real property. That has stood the college very well for the last thousand years.” But the oldest senior fellow in the room shook his head and said, “Well, that is true enough. But the last thousand years have been atypical.”[laughter]

Well, I feel the same way. It has been atypical, this last millennium, and one thing I am sure of is that the next thousand years are as sure as hell going to be atypical, too. Fundamentally, that is the message science fiction has to say in literature.

To my mind, most literature is focused very much upon the immediate past and acute personal experience, without realizing what is going on in society as a whole, over the long run. So I was drawn to write science fiction (although I don’t write only science fiction) because it tries to talk about the impact of everything on society, not just the individual experience. But, of course, fiction has to be about individuals. The trick, you see, is that science fiction talks about science. You might even guess that from the name, although you wouldn’t guess that necessarily from reading a lot of it. You know these statements at the beginning of books where they say, these characters bear no resemblance to any person living or dead? Well, that is the problem with them, usually. [laughter] There is no semblance of real human beings, and that is the trouble with science fiction novels frequently. One of the things that I have tried to do is counter that all-too-frequent fact.

And indeed, scientists are like ordinary people, only worse.

Science is the mainspring in this century. Historians will call this the century of science, more than any other century, because this is where it became obvious that the big driving term in the equation of society is science. In the past, for example, it may have been whatever crank religion was on the scene, or something like that — lately, millineal politics, a la Marxism, Fascism and other faiths. Science has really started to drive human society right into the nonlinear phase — one I spend a lot of time with in plasma physics ­ for plasmas are pesky and nonlinear as hell.. Now society is clearly in that regime, also. And coming at us fast.

 

As a scientist the first thing you have to counter is the cult view of us; this lab smock image. You see, we have become the emblem of truth. If you don’t doubt it, just look at commercials. If they really want to say something is undeniable, they say it is scientifically proved — which means they took a poll, they asked six people. And the opposite of that, of course, is lies. Another synonym for lies is, as we know, fiction. So, how can you construct a thing that is called science fiction? What does it mean? Fiction is nice, it is pretty, it is poetic, exciting, informing, maybe even enduring, but fundamentally it is lies. So what is science fiction? Is it lies about the truth, or is it the truth about lies? Either way you choose, it looks like a mug’s game. The right answer to this is none of the above. Science fiction is supposed to be literature that tells us what the hell science is doing in society. One of the things that bothers me about SF is that it doesn’t seem to be able to talk concretely about scientists themselves very frequently. Instead, it is about people like star ship captains and other riffraff who will land on alien planets. or world dictators who pretend to see the future, and other figures apparently close to our hearts.

I should answer the question in my title. When Brian Maple — my classmate so clearly bound for better things, even then — called me, he said, we want you to talk. We are having people discuss history and research and so on. Oh, I said great, Brian ­ you want me to talk about relativistic jets from galaxies? He of courses aid, “No.” And I asked, you want me to talk about plasma physics? He said, “No, uh...” I said, you want me to talk about surfing, don’t you, Brian? He said, “No, no.” So it’s going to be the old SF talk again, right?”

So, to give the same old answer: The basic reason I write SF is that it is fun. I don’t think you should write anything unless it is un. So why do people have so much trouble writing scientific papers? [laughter] The doing of science is fun. Writing it up, though particularly this Germanic way we have evolved — then the scientific paper is not fun. I did a parody once called, “How to Write a Scientific Paper”., published in Omni. It was supposed to be a paper written the way scientists actually read them. So it opened with the references. [laughter] Yes, you see, you all understand! [laughter] That’s our tribe, writ true. Then there came the acknowledgment. [laughter] Then the title, then some figures. That is where the paper ended! [laughter]

You see, if you put that in a book, no nonscientist would understand it unless you explained — and then you would kill it. That is one purpose of art. Alas, art is often the embalming of what was once lively. That is largely what I tried to do in Timescape — particularly, in the UCSD portions, to write about our experience. What it is like to come to this blissfully beautiful place, full of gigantic minds, many quite distracted and irritable — sorry! — and with similarly sized egos — ah, the atmosphere as it was then! Because, as you have probably noticed, it ain’t that way now. It is a big, calcified University with an apparatus in place, and reputations to protect. It is not the same experience we had. I thought that was such a wonderful time, I decided to write about it. I also wrote a fair amount of the stuff set in England. My sister-in-law, Hilary, wrote the point of view of the English housewife, which I felt unqualified to talk about. I wrote about physicists in the English environment and tried to talk of what I think is going to happen to England — and some other places, like the United States, too, if we don’t change.

A lot of things happen when you are trying to write about science. Of course, I know you find our profession absolutely fascinating. Seen from the outside, stylistically, watching scientists work is essentially on the same par with watching paint dry [laughter] But, at not quite the same pace. And in the SF media, of course, we have things like Star Wars and high camp SF. That doesn’t have anything to do with science. What does sometimes have to do with science are films like 2001 on a higher plane. Timescape was the first major novel in which I really tried to just talk about scientists. This new one, Artifact, is another such novel, although written with a much faster pace about other kinds of scientists. I got bored with physicists after a while and did a lot of work on archeology. Artifact is mostly about how archeologists work, and the fact that it intersects politics a great deal. As many of you have noticed, in Timescape I went around, and, as every novelist does, copied a lot from real life. There is a person in this room, I stole this gesture from. [laughter] [Leans back, puts a foot flat against the wall.] Laurie Littenberg! I noticed that when I ran into Laurie here the other night, within three minutes he repeated this gesture. It was heart warming. I stole a whole lot of things from a whole lot of people. There is the character that everybody always asks me about, Gordon Bernstein, who is not a copy of Herb Bernstein, although I took some stuff from Herb Bernstein. And, you know, until I finished the novel I did not realize at all — at least did not realize consciously — that the life profile of Gordon Bernstein is exactly that of — is anybody recording this? — Shelly Schultz. Shelly is not here is he? Good. In the story, Gordon Bernstein is having an affair with a woman of another faith -- there is a word for that [laughter] and there are a lot of things in there that are not true of Shelly, I think. [laughter] But many things are.

He went to Columbia University, he is Jewish, he was an Assistant Professor, he was coming here to try to get some papers out so he would get tenure. We remember that, don’t we? Ah, youth! But the rest was invented entirely. I stole bits of stuff from diverse people like Bud Bridges. Roger Isaacson appears in somewhat transmuted form in the book, and for a small sum I can tell you who that is. [laughter] Maybe not a small sum! And there are a lot of real walk-on people. People like Herb York, for example, is mentioned in passing. In the Department. And often that was what he was doing, passing through on his way to the Test Ban Treaty or Camelot or someplace. And lots of people are in there who were on the faculty. It was not their fault, they just happened to be faculty and so I used their names. Gordon Bernstein, the character falls asleep in a Colloquium given by, yes, by Norman Rostoker. That’s right. Can’t figure why I said that.

 

But I took from a paper on Norman Rostoker’s wall a list of the evolution of the laser fusion program. I used that as a parody of what happens to scientific programs. You can find it in the book; I can’t repeat it off hand. I took lots of things from graduate students — most of them unsuspecting. There was only one person whom I really felt that I had to take material from, and use as a foreground character and assign lines of dialog. I had a very clear memory of what this person had said, but nonetheless I wanted to OK it. Freeman Dyson read it, thought it was great and said fine, go ahead and use it. I xeroxed that and sent it to the publisher because he was worried about people taking the wrong idea about themselves being presented in novels. I wasn’t worried about it — scientists don’t have the time to sue anybody. The person whom I did decide to disguise quite well was a person who is called in the book Saul Schriffer. Now the real life stand-in for Saul Schriffer was not on the faculty here. He occasionally passed through, like many of the self-luminous objects in our universe, giving off a lot of radiation. I was giving an invited talk at the AAAS about three years ago. I sat in the preparation room with this guy and he said, “You know, I just read Timescape because I have just sold a contract for a 2 million dollar novel with Simon and Schuster, and I was trying to figure out how to write it.“[laughter] We had a discussion, over an hour long, about how you present scientists, what you do about covering up your tracks, how you decide to portray people in just the right way so you get the essence of them without all the messy details — a technical discussion, how you cut scenes, all this kind of detailed stuff.. He had not thought about many of these things before; you don’t, in nonfiction. (note that we don’t have a term for all writing that’s supposedly true — it’s just no- fiction.). He discussed the book in detail — this aspect and that, characterization, plot. Nowhere in this conversation did he give the slightest hint that he thought he might be portrayed in the book.

And I am convinced that he was not at all aware that he was in the book. This was to me a revelation. Someone had said to me long ago — I think Arthur C. Clarke — that if you change the appearance of a character from that of the actual person, he will almost never recognize him or herself. I think it is actually true, because Saul Schriffer has no physical resemblance to Carl — what’s his name? [laughter] I learned a great deal from that. So if you are ever thinking about writing a book about UCSD you can go ahead and just do anything — simply change the color of the eyes or something, and you’re on safe ground. One thing I particularly liked about writing Timescape was that it put me back in touch with a lot of people who were here at that era. So many of the people who figured — sometimes only indirectly — in the book are here this weekend. It is quite possible that somebody else could write another novel about UCSD in that era, but it ain’t going to be easy — because there is a limited market for these things you know. [laughter]

I don’t think I’ll ever write anything about UCSD again. It was a unique era. Timescape talks about time and the fact that our physical theories are not complete. There are many hidden assumptions in physics which, as Einstein showed, have to be reinvestigated. So I think scientists should try to write fiction — to convey that science is not what most of those people out there think — that is, a set of received opinions, a set of frozen data.. Science fiction is also about the future, seen through the changing lens of science. Just having a perspective above the flow of the daily news helps to fathom that future. For example, we’re here in the middle of the Reagan years, and those will pass, but the larger landscape is visible. I spent a lot of time thinking about the Soviet Union these last few years, spent three chilly weeks there last year, 1984 — and I don’t mean the temperature. What’s next? Clearly, the Soviet Union is doomed. This will surprise some; we tend to think big institutions last. After it falls, we’ll see a sudden world realization that freedom and free markets work — big shock, for some. Technology will open doors for us — computers and the internet particularly. But then new enemies of reason and science will arise, and we’ll have to fend them off — by making the experience and wonder of science dwell in people’s minds, not as spectacle (which too often science fiction is, merely), but as insight.

Science is a giant slugfest of always provisional ideas. What they don’t get out there, is science as partial, provisional knowledge. Often they want to turn it into a faith. That is why there is the Jonas Salk lab smock image. We have become the emblem of certainty to them. “Scientifically true! Scientifically proven!” And they don’t get it when we say, “Hey, but that can be changed at any moment.” One new fact can destroy the oldest theory on earth. They don’t understand that. And yet that is the most simple thing about science.

I feel that we have an obligation as scientists to continually remind people that we are not the mandarins of some Byzantine, complex, non-understandable, great set of facts. Instead, we are explorers trying to find out what is going on. Often in the physical sciences, as you know, it is like trying to take a drink out of a fire hose. It is often trying to find a fact which will reveal something, against the blizzard of facts that roars through your life all the time.

 

There is so much complexity in science. They can’t understand the difference between that surface complexity and the simplicity underlying it.. Simplicity is the only way we are going to reach people. . Complexity just makes them think it is another faith. They just think the physical world is a big, complicated machine with no hope of them ever understanding it. How many people do you know who are afraid to get on airplanes and have no understanding of how they work? They know nothing of Bernoulli’s Law, fluids, forces. They can’t understand what holds it up, so they are afraid it will fall down. That is a simple example, but it expresses what many feel about science in our society. Anything we can do to contradict that, to undermine that, to falsify that as their view of science — is a very good idea. So I would urge all of you to communicate — in whatever ways you want. Writing articles for high paying magazines like Scientific American or appearing at the Rotarians and preaching a “faith.” — anything you can do to tell people about science as she really is, is a good idea. All these tax dollars supporting the expansion of our knowledge do have to come from someone. If they don’t get the spirit of science, ultimately we are not communicating and they are not going to fund us. That is the bottom line. So I would say you all ought to be communicators of science, because the alternative to popular science is unpopular science! — and we don’t want that, do we?

 

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