Benford, Gregory

Tagged: Author | Editor | Fan

(1941-    ) US astrophysicist and author; in 1971 he was appointed an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of California, Irvine, rising to Professor of Plasma Physics and Astrophysics in 1979, a position he held until 2006, when he formally resigned in order to participate in a new bio-tech corporation dedicated to unplumbing the genetic governors of ageing in humans. His first involvement in sf was with Fandom: he edited a notable Fanzine, Void, with various co-editors including Ted White and Terry Carr. He began to publish fiction of interest with "Stand-In" for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in June 1965, which won second place in a contest organized by the magazine. He has written in collaboration with several authors, and has also published as by Sterling Blake, though his most distinguished work has been solo.

Early collaborations include some stories with his identical-twin brother James and a series of regular articles on The Science in SF for Amazing Stories initially with David Book 1969-1972; Benford continued the series solo, somewhat less regularly, until 1976. Further collaborative work includes If the Stars are Gods (fixup 1977) with Gordon Eklund – the original version of whose title-piece "If the Stars are Gods" (in Universe 4, anth 1974, ed Terry Carr) won a Nebula in 1975 – and the less impressive Find the Changeling (1980) with Eklund; his Disaster novel Shiva Descending (1980) with William Rotsler also fails to convey the imaginative and cognitive energy of his solo work. Both of these collaborators, it may be guessed, did interject some narrative fluency into Benford's initially stiff-kneed (though challenging) approach to matters of fiction; Heart of the Comet (1986) with David Brin, on the other hand, is both fluent and cognitively interesting in its adventures within a Comet. Benford also undertook a curious "collaboration" with Arthur C Clarke: Beyond the Fall of Night (omni 1990; vt Against the Fall of Night and Beyond the Fall of Night 1991), an "authorized sequel" by Benford alone to Clarke's Against the Fall of Night (November 1948 Startling; 1953) accompanied by a reprint of the Clarke novel, to which it is specifically linked – Clarke's own subsequent revision of his novel as The City and the Stars (1956) is not addressed. Much later, in Beyond Infinity (2004), Benford revisited the themes and some of the venues of this long complex project (Clarke's first drafts of Against the Fall of Night predate Benford's birth), making a more explicit Scientific Romance out of exemplary cultures clashing, rather demurely, at the End of Time, when a malign influence out of a previously experienced Singularity threatens to end the story of humans in the flesh.

Benford early established himself though his solo work as a leading writer of Hard SF, although much of his writing also has a lyrical aspect reminiscent of Poul Anderson, and his larger-scale tales have an almost impersonal sweep typical of the Scientific Romance epics of his younger contemporary Stephen Baxter, an approach to his material that showed as early as his first novel, Deeper than the Darkness (1970), one of many stories in which humanity's confrontation with Aliens proves deeply disturbing. This novel was substantially recast as The Stars in Shroud (May-September 1978 Galaxy; 1978), a tale associated with the Galactic Center Saga sequence, Benford's major large-scale project, which begins formally with In the Ocean of Night (fixup 1977); the remaining titles in the sequence contain metaphorical references to water. The central character of In the Ocean of Night, astronaut Nigel Walmsley, reappears in Across the Sea of Suns (1984; rev 1987), which introduces the theme of a universe-wide struggle between organic and inorganic "lifeforms" in which self-replicating Machines (see Berserkers) appear to have the upper hand; this scenario is further developed in the Galactic Center Saga: Family Bishop volumes – comprising Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989), Furious Gulf (1994) and Sailing Bright Eternity (1995) – which centre upon the forced flight of human Families towards a form of sanctuary in the heart of the galaxy where they seek Transcendence, but harassed all the while by their inorganic foe. Throughout the sequence, Benford generates some interesting early variations on the increasingly common sf deployment of Avatars: in this case they are not "castings" into the world of aspects or versions of the humans or AIs who have engendered them, but voluble though partial versions of human ancestors electronically stored within the minds of the living. A much later series, the Adventures of Viktor & Julia sequence comprising The Martian Race (1999) and The Sunborn (2005), initially pits its heroes in a privately financed race to Mars in opposition to a competing European-Chinese project; in volume two their triumph is complexified by the Martian race they have discovered, the Immortality they have acquired, and a chance to explore the Outer Planets.

Benford achieved a popular and critical breakthrough with Timescape (1980), which won the Nebula, the John W Campbell Memorial Award and the Ditmar Award. In its description of an attempt to change history by transmitting a tachyonic message across time (see Tachyons; Time Radio) it offers one of the best-ever fictional descriptions of scientists at work. Another Near-Future, almost Mainstream novel is Artifact (1985), in which archaeologists discover evidence of an Alien visitation with almost catastrophic consequences. Against Infinity (1983) is pure sf in terms of its plot, which involves the search for an enigmatic alien Machine on Ganymede, but its structure is strongly reminiscent of William Faulkner's novella "The Bear" (9 May 1942 Saturday Evening Post); and the novella "To the Storming Gulf" (April 1985 F&SF) contains strong echoes of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930). Comments on these parallels by critic Gary K Wolfe caused some controversy. Chiller (1993) as by Sterling Blake is again a Near Future tale involving Cryonics and a fanatic serial killer whose mission it is to prevent people from preserving their minds; the seeds of Benford's own twenty-first century decision to focus his primary energies the genetics of gerontology can be sensed here. Cosm (1998) intriguingly describes the creation (by fallible scientists) and rapid Evolution of a microscopic universe (see Great and Small); some of the speculative issues addressed here are also addressed in Microcosms (anth 2004), an assemblage of original stories.

Eater (2000) radically deepens some of the premises of Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957); in this case the Living World whose approach threatens Earth is an actual Black Hole, and its unconcern for humanity is far more savage. Fittingly for a book designed for the new century, everything is more complicated, everyone knows more, the stakes are greater, and so are the costs. Benford's depiction of the scientists who must attempt to save Earth shows them, like all his scientists, as contentious, sharp, talkative; and in the end wholly dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. As in all of Benford's best books, the greatest thrill conveyed by Eater is the thrill of learning something new, and then doing something with the knowledge. The Bowl of Heaven sequence comprising Bowl of Heaven (2012) and Shipstar (2014), both with Larry Niven, returns to the Macrostructure sublime of Niven's Ringworld (1970) and similar tales, featuring a bisected Dyson Sphere seemingly built by a Forerunner species, a kind of super World Ship which travels through the galaxy powered by the energy from the red star trapped within it, the explanatory Physics for which originates with Benford; the authors distinguish Niven's Ringworld, which they describe as a Big Dumb Object, from its dynamically much more complex successor, but with no gain in plausibility.

Benford's short fiction has been variously assembled: In Alien Flesh (coll 1986), Matter's End (coll 1994) and Worlds Vast and Various (coll 2000) gather the best of it. He has co-edited a number of anthologies with Martin Harry Greenberg, perhaps most interestingly Hitler Victorious: 11 Stories of the German Victory in World War II (anth 1986) (see Hitler Wins, World War Two); for further Alternate History anthologies from the two, see Checklist below. Though his grasp of character sometimes falters, and complicated political/cultural arguments about the contemporary world are sometimes conveyed with excessive assurance, Benford's work continues to play formidable intellectual games with readers willing to think harder than normal (his continued activity as a professional astrophysicist may have something to do with this youthfulness of mind). [BS/JC]

see also: Astronomy; Automation; BSFA Award; Communications; End of the World; Eschatology; Gods and Demons; Invasion; Jupiter; Monsters; Neutron Stars; New Wave; Psychology; Religion; Scientists; Stars; Sun; Synergy; Technology; Terraforming; Timescape Books; Time Viewer; Universe; Weapons; Writers of the Future Contest.

Gregory Albert Benford

born Mobile, Alabama: 30 January 1941

died

works

series

Galactic Center Saga: Ocean

  • The Stars in Shroud (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1978) [a substantial recasting of the non-series Deeper than the Darkness below: Galactic Center Saga: Ocean: hb/Paul Alexander]
  • In the Ocean of Nightsfgateway.com (New York: Dial Press, 1977) [Galactic Center Saga: Ocean: hb/Larry Kresek]
  • Across the Sea of Sunssfgateway.com (New York: Timescape Books, 1984) [Galactic Center Saga: Ocean: hb/]
    • Across the Sea of Sunssfgateway.com (New York: Bantam Books, 1987) [exp rev of the above: Galactic Center Saga: Ocean: pb/Roger Bergendorf]

Galactic Center Saga: Family Bishop

  • Great Sky Riversfgateway.com (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1987) [Galactic Center Saga: Family Bishop: hb/Roger Bergendorf]
  • Tides of Lightsfgateway.com (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1989) [Galactic Center Saga: Family Bishop: hb/Roger Bergendorf]
  • Furious Gulfsfgateway.com (New York: Bantam Books, 1994) [Galactic Center Saga: Family Bishop: hb/John Dismukes]
  • Sailing Bright Eternitysfgateway.com (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995) [Galactic Center Saga: Family Bishop: hb/Bob Eggleton]

Adventures of Viktor & Julia

  • The Martian Race (New York: Warner Books/Aspect, 1999) [Adventures of Viktor & Julia: hb/Stephen Youll]
  • The Sunborn (New York: Warner Books, 2005) [Adventures of Viktor & Julia: hb/Don Dixon]

shared-world series

Man-Kzin Wars

Isaac Asimov's Foundation

Bowl of Heaven

individual titles

collections and stories

nonfiction

works as editor

series

What Might Have Been?

individual titles and contributions to series

about the author

  • George Slusser. Gregory Benford (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2014) [nonfiction: in the publisher's Modern Masters of Science Fiction series: pb/Percolator and University of California-Irvine: hb/nonpictorial]

links

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.