Sci-Fi and Fact Provide Professor a Novel Twist

Times Staff Writer

Physics professor Gregory Benford worked his way through the maze of high-energy electronics equipment in the basement physics laboratory at UC Irvine.

"I spend a fair amount of time down here going over data and talking to students," noted Benford, stopping at a control panel where several graduate students were about to conduct an experiment with an electron beam accelerator.

The large, orange device--about the size of a Volkswagen with a long tube extending from it--fires a beam of electrons traveling close to the speed of light into high-energy plasma: hot ionized atoms.

"We're doing it to simulate the environments in astrophysics such as pulsars, quasars and the sun," said Benford, as one of the students pressed the red firing button.

A muffled bang briefly drowned out the constant clacking of the accelerator's vacuum pumps. Benford smiled.

"There we go, that was it," he said. "The whole aim is to look at the electromagnetic radiation that emerges. If we're going to have long space missions we've got to be able to predict the advent of solar storms."

As a scientist whose research specialties include plasma physics and high-energy astrophysics, Benford obviously knows his way around an electron beam accelerator.

But he also knows his way around a word processor--as a successful, award-winning science fiction author noted for his fictional use of the latest scientific advances.

Indeed, Benford, 44, is that rara avis of the literary world: a science fiction writer who is a working scientist.

Benford's ninth novel, "Artifact," described by one reviewer as a "well-turned, scary near-future thriller," was published by Tor Books in June.

The plot of "Artifact," which Benford calls an "intellectual suspense novel," is set in motion when an independent archeologist--an attractive, strong-willed American woman--working an ancient Mycenaean site in Greece discovers embedded in a tomb a large black granite cube with a mysterious amber cone protruding from it.

Appropriately, a physics laboratory figures prominently in the novel when, due to increasing anti-Americanism in Greece, the artifact is smuggled back to Boston, where an MIT physics professor discovers that trapped inside is a microscopic particle--a tiny "black hole"--capable of unimaginable destruction.

Benford concedes that the scenes set in the physics lab are "the riskiest part of the novel." Showing scientists at work, he wryly notes, "is basically about as interesting as watching paint dry."

Benford, however, pulls it off.

Indeed, his "accurate, telling accounts of scientists at work," as a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews puts it, have become Benford's hallmark as an author.

His award-winning 1980 novel, "Timescape" (Simon and Schuster), was praised by the Manchester Guardian as being "quite possibly the best novel about scientists yet." It's about a team of Cambridge University scientists who attempt to save the world from ecological disaster by sending a beam of "tachyons" (theoretical particles that move faster than the speed of light) back in time with a coded warning from the future.

Benford's blend of scientific accuracy and strong plots and characters has earned him best-seller status ("Timescape," which is printed in six languages, has sold 300,000 paperbacks and 12,000 hardback copies). His writing also has earned him near-six-figure advances from publishers and top science fiction writing awards, including the British Science Fiction Award (for "Timescape") and two Nebula Awards, which are presented annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America (for "Timescape" and "If the Stars Are Gods," published in 1975). Not bad for someone who started writing science fiction short stories in 1964 merely for "recreation" while a graduate student at what is now UC San Diego.

70 Short Stories

Since then, Benford has published about 70 short stories--St. Martin's will release a hardback collection of his short stories next year--and he now turns out about one novel a year.

Benford, however, still views his writing as recreation.

"Oh sure, it's a hobby," he said during an interview in his cluttered, cubbyhole of an office in UCI's physical science building. "If you write four pages a week--typed, double-spaced--at the end of the year you'll have a novel."

Benford grinned when asked if that was his own method of writing.

"No, but I like to say that to people," said the bearded professor, casually attired in jogging shoes and a short-sleeved blue shirt with a pen peeking out of the breast pocket. "Nobody gives much weight to the simple process of accretion. You can sit down and turn out copy fast or slow, and strangely enough it doesn't vary much in quality. Most of writing is just work. It's really like making shoes."

'I Prefer Science'

Although Benford acknowledges that he could "live off the money" he makes from his novels--"Timescape" alone so far has earned him about $200,000--he has no intention of abandoning university life for full-time writing.

"I prefer the science," said Benford, extolling the joys of "pursuing new ideas--the process of going from the raw data to the sublime clarity of some new notion. I can write on the side, and that's enough writing."

As a scientist-science fiction author, Benford acknowledges that he has the best of both worlds.

"And also it's my observation that full-time writing is an extremely hazardous occupation," he said, his frequently wry wit surfacing: "It tends to lead to alcoholism and divorce and early death from various causes."

Benford writes mostly on weekends and in the evenings in the ocean-view, hilltop Laguna Beach home he shares with his art-historian wife, Joan, and their two children, Mark, 12, and Alyson, 14.

For Benford, much of the work of writing a novel is done away from the word processor.

Novel More 'Mainstream'

"I do a lot of preplanning--plotting, an outline, note-taking--so that when I'm actually hitting the keys I can produce material instead of just sitting there," said Benford, whose preplanning for "Artifact" included visiting archeological digs in Greece and Egypt.

The author describes "Artifact" as being more of a "mainstream" novel than his previous science fiction works.

"I decided this time I wanted to write a novel which fundamentally is about how scientists work but also moves very quickly and had a lot of other things in it," he said. "So I decided to write a big novel that had a strong plot, strong characters and some really pretty inventive ideas at the core of it. I did a lot of research on it--a lot of research on archeology, on physics and things like that."

The tiny "black hole" contained within the novel's mysterious "artifact" is, he said, "based on some very recent theoretical work in the last few years which says there may be such small black holes.

"Actually, I had the idea of what I wanted to do, and while I was working on the novel I ran across the theoretical papers that had just been published. It was total serendipity. Basically, I knew this kind of thing was possible, but I hadn't suspected people were actively working on it."

Benford, who believes he may be the only current science fiction author who also is a working scientist, recently wrote an essay for the Encyclopedia Britannica on that very subject: the scientist in literature.

Not a Long Tradition

With the late C.P. Snow being perhaps the most notable exception, there is not, he said, a long tradition of scientist-authors in literature.

"There are many reasons," he said. "Scientists are not primarily verbal--they don't think in terms of 'literature' and it (science) is a difficult experience to convey. First, it's full of arcane knowledge which puts people off. Second, the language of it is somewhat confusing and, third, the experience is all so internalized. I mean, look how books and films try to portray the creative experience generally. You can't show the creative process very clearly, and that's what's interesting about science, as well as the scale of the subject, the implications."

Benford said he has consciously worked on portraying scientists at work in his novels "because it struck me that we do need to convey what science is all about--how scientists think--to people, and largely we haven't. The image of the scientist in this society is essentially a stand-in authority figure whom you can love or hate but you certainly can't understand."

Stereotypical Image

The stereotypical image of the scientist in a white lab coat--an image, Benford notes, that is even used to sell toothpaste--"means, 'Here's truth, here's science.'

"And the flip side is all the anti-science stuff of people who are afraid of nuclear power or just technology generally. They're just terrified of technology. You can always see the risk in technology--that it's supposedly out of control . . . not that these are entirely groundless fears, but the main point is that they are ignorant fears and ignorance never gives you wings.

"The main thing people are missing is that science is not a source of revealed wisdom. It is a provisional process. They ask of science final answers, and what we can give is approximate, provisional answers that are subject to change without notice. Many people want certainty, but science doesn't give you certainty. It gives you some degree of assurance."

In response to the question, "Why does a scientist write science fiction?"--the title of his recent talk to the UCI Chancellor's Club--Benford said: "The short answer is fun. The long answer is I think scientists ought to think about the implications of their work on the future."

'Deep Questions'

Writing science fiction appeals to Benford for several reasons.

"First, it's about the deep questions that are presented by our science and technology and almost nothing else in literature is," he said. "Most literature is completely innocent of science--in fact, actively avoids it. Most mainstream fiction has turned into narrow realism: endless novels of suburban adultery or corporate intrigue or international suspense.

"Second, it's about the future, and now all the big moral questions are posed in terms of the future. They are: If this goes on . . . ? Or, what if . . . ? Whereas a hundred years ago that was not the case and so the future is, to our generation, much more real that it ever was to anybody else.

"This has sort of crept up on us without being noticed. I mean all these popular movies now are set in the future. That was never the case. In fact, until about 15 years ago all the popular movies were set in the past. They were 'Gone With the Wind' and the incredible number of Westerns and various historical dramas. Nothing was set in the future because the future didn't exist. The past, to most people, was real and concrete and did exist. The fact that it was dead didn't matter."

'It's a Pariah'

Despite the increased popularity of science fiction in the past decade, Benford noted that science fiction holds a far from hallowed position in the literary world.

"It's a pariah," he said. "Science fiction in the history of literature has been an outcast except for Wells and Verne. In the 1920s it became identified with pulp fiction in the United States, and that doomed it."

Science fiction's identification with pulp fiction persists, he said, "so that even though some of the best writers in America are writing science fiction, they will not even be reviewed."

Ironically, Benford said science fiction writers "were enormously damaged by 'Star Wars' and its antecedents." While acknowledging that "Star Wars" was a "fun film," he laments the fact that "the people who were just then beginning to see science fiction as a set of very interesting novels that are primarily about ideas--I think science fiction by far is the most intellectual of all literature--just forgot about that aspect" in the wake of special effects.

A Campus Celebrity

With the success of his own novels, Benford acknowledged, he has "slowly" become something of a campus celebrity. It's not unusual, he said, for a student to show up at his office door with an armload of books for him to autograph.

"I always autograph them; it's fine by me," said Benford, who usually shuns book-signing parties. He also draws the line at reading novel manuscripts that occasionally come his way: "I don't have the time."

Indeed, when he's not teaching class, doing research or working on a novel, Benford writes occasional newspaper op-ed pieces and book reviews. He also serves on President Reagan's Citizen's Advisory Council on National Space Policy, which recommended the controversial space defense technology outlined in Reagan's so-called "Star Wars" speech.

With the exception of maybe writing a short story or two, Benford said he plans to take the rest of the year off from writing.

But that doesn't mean there won't be another Gregory Benford novel out in 1986.

10th Novel Finished

He already has completed his 10th novel, "Heart of the Comet," which deals with Halley's comet. The novel is his first written with a co-author, David Brin, a UC San Diego physicist who did his doctorate on comets. It will be published by Bantam in hardback next February to coincide with the time Halley's comet will be visible in the northern hemisphere. "In many ways," noted Benford, "it's going to be the astronomical event of the century."

"Heart of the Comet," however, deals with the famous comet's next passage--in the 21st Century.

Explained Benford, the author: "It concerns a scientific mission to Halley 76 years from now in which a manned expedition rendezvous with the head of the comet. I think it's quite possible that by that time we will begin using comets as valuable resources because they are full of volatiles."

Explained Benford, the scientist: "Volatile materials are not easy to find in the inner solar system. A big ball 10 kilometers in radius of water and carbon dioxide is worth a large amount in orbit, and if you could get it almost for free then it becomes a very cheap way to support space colonization and manufacturing in space."

Like Benford's "Artifact," "Heart of the Comet" ultimately may prove to be more science fact than science fiction: In September, according to a recent Times article, an American satellite dubbed the International Cometary Explorer is expected to become the first spacecraft to pass through the treacherous tail of a comet.

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