THE SUNDAY PROFILE : The Science of Fiction : UCI Astrophysicist Gregory Benford Puts Reality Into His Novels
Sporting a blue Hawaiian shirt, brown shorts and red thongs, Gregory Benford hardly looks the picture of academic decorum, let alone fits the stereotype of an internationally known astrophysicist.
But the bearded Benford, seated at a paper-strewn desk in his office in the physical science building at UC Irvine, can be excused his Moondoggie-Goes-to-the-Luau attire. It’s still summer after all, downtime at the university. And even though classes are not in session, Benford continues to drive three or four days a week to campus from his home in Laguna Beach to do research.
Over the past 10 years, he’s been studying the center of the galaxy, specifically the dozens of massive electrical discharges occurring within a few hundred light-years of the black hole.
“Basically, I think they’re a form of immense lightning,” says Benford, 53, who served on the Reagan Administration’s Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy, which advocated the futuristic defense technology known as Star Wars. He also advises NASA on space travel and serves as a consultant for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
But the academic setting in which Benford toils provides little clue to the double life he leads. For the past quarter-century, Benford has parlayed his expertise of science fact into an award-winning career in science fiction.
Benford is a two-time winner of the Nebula Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Science Fiction Writers of America, for “If the Stars Are Gods,” his 1976 novel about the exploration of the solar system, and “Timescape,” his 1980 best seller about a team of scientists in the near future attempting to communicate back in time in order to back the world away from ecological disaster.
“Timescape,” still in print in 10 languages, was deemed by the Manchester Guardian as “quite probably the best novel about scientists yet written.”
His “accurate, telling accounts of scientists at work,” as Kirkus Reviews once put it, are a hallmark of Benford’s novels. Said a Washington Post reviewer: “In the rapidly shrinking world of ‘hard’ SF, Benford is just about the best novelist now at work.”
“Hard” science fiction, says Benford, is “that which is scientifically scrupulous. It’s the real stuff--fiction about science the way it really is, and the science in it is accurate. It’s not willy-nilly garbage like the media SF of ‘Stars Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and all that trash.”
Benford’s latest book, “Furious Gulf,” (Bantam Spectra; $22.95) is about an expedition exploring the black hole at the center of the galaxy. It’s the fifth in his “Galactic Center” series, which began in 1976 with “In the Ocean of the Night.”
One of Benford’s longtime fans is best-selling suspense author Dean Koontz, who in his 1981 book on how to write best-selling fiction cited Benford’s “Timescape” as an example “of how good science fiction can be when it really tries.”
Benford and Koontz, a Newport Beach resident, have since become good friends, with Benford and his wife, Joan, getting together frequently with Koontz and his wife, Gerda.
“We share an interest in good food and good wine and good conversation, so that means our relationship is largely conducted over dinners,” Koontz says. He and Benford also talk frequently on the phone, “usually complaining about the publishing business. Writers love to complain to other writers about the publishing business. And, of course, in every instance we consider ourselves saints and everyone else in the business Philistines.”
One of the things he most likes about Benford, Koontz says, is “his unshakable sense of humor, which is generally based on human folly, and therefore there’s plenty of material.” Benford can also be self-deprecating, Koontz says with a chuckle. “If he’s not, then I make fun of him. I always try to give him balance. It bothers me that he’s a successful physicist and a successful writer, and therefore I try to humble him.”
Home base for the Benfords is a custom-built, single-story house at the top of Laguna’s Mystic Canyon.
The comfortable house on Skyline Drive, which boasts lots of wood and windows and a deck that commands a sweeping view to the ocean less than a mile away, barely survived the firestorm that swept through Laguna last fall and wiped out scores of nearby homes.
The Benfords, who have been married 27 years, moved into their home in 1972, shortly after Benford joined the faculty at UCI. A die-hard waterman, he heads down to the beach every other day in the summer to swim, surf or scuba dive.
The couple’s 23-year-old daughter, Alyson, is an artist who works in a frame shop in Portland. Son Mark, 21, spent part of the past school year traveling around the world with the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea program and will attend Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon this fall.
Joan Benford, who worked as an outreach teacher for the Laguna Beach Museum of Art and developed a program of traveling art exhibits for Orange County schools, is also a past president of the Chamber Music Society. She met her husband in La Jolla in the mid-'60s when he was working on his master’s degree in physics and she was head of the art department at a private girls school.
“He’s always interested in new ideas and new things,” she says of her husband. “He has a lively intellect and an interest in the future.”
Settling into the carpeted conversation pit--a favorite family hangout with its TV and a fireplace--Benford talked about two of his favorite subjects: science fiction and the future.
Benford, who once wrote an essay on the scientist in literature for the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s annual volume, is still one of the few working scientists writing science fiction. (“Most scientists don’t write, period. Or they don’t write fiction certainly,” he says.)
There is, Benford acknowledges, an advantage to writing science fiction as a scientist.
“First, you know the landscape,” he says. “It’s the same advantage of being a lawyer and writing lawyer novels, or it’s (ex-police officer) Joe Wambaugh’s advantage in writing his fiction. It really helps if you know your subject matter immediately. I find that enormously useful because then you can concentrate on all the usual novelistic things--the character, the plot and so forth--and you don’t have to spend an enormous amount of time learning another trade essentially.”
The events portrayed in science fiction are based on imagination, he says, “but in true science fiction you are constrained by science, and that doesn’t make it any easier because it’s not the ordinary world that you’re describing. You have to describe it in a plausible way so an educated person would believe it makes sense, and you also have to make it interesting.”
Benford comes by his ability to tell an interesting story naturally, having soaked up the oral tradition of Southern storytelling as a boy growing up in Alabama. It also helped that his mother was a high school English teacher who instilled in him a love of reading at an early age.
Born in 1941 in Mobile--"because that was the only hospital in southern Alabama"--he grew up in Robertsdale, a small town on the Gulf Coast.
Shortly after Benford’s birth, his father, an Army Reservist who taught high school agriculture classes and was head of agriculture education for southern Alabama, was called up for active duty.
During their early years, Benford and his identical twin, James, spent summers on their grandmother’s farm. It was there, listening to his relatives, that he picked up the storytelling tradition.
“This was the 1940s; there was no television,” he says. “It was a different age--it was not swamped by media; it was swamped by reality, and storytelling was a very big art where I came from.”
When Benford’s father returned home from the war, he returned to teaching high school. But a few years later, with the Cold War in full swing, he accepted a commission and became a regular Army officer. In 1949, he was assigned to Japan, and the family moved to Tokyo for three years, followed by three years in Germany.
It was in Japan that Benford began reading science fiction.
“I really liked it,” he says, “particularly people like Robert Heinlein, who depicted a future that was much more interesting than this present and also (depicted) what kind of skill would make it possible to live and work in that future to have an interesting life. In other words, the core thing was science. Science would lead you to a more interesting life than something else.”
A major influence on Benford’s decision to become a scientist came with the 1957 launching of Sputnik, the Soviet spacecraft that awakened the need to emphasize science in American classrooms.
Sputnik, recalls Benford, captured everyone’s imagination.
“It fulfilled the prophesies in the science fiction I had been reading,” he says. “It was probably that that convinced me that science fiction was worth writing more so than conventional fiction.
“Science fiction not only predicted (space flight), it measurably made it happen. The people who built the space program--both Soviet and U.S.--were readers of science fiction.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Oklahoma, Benford moved to California in 1963 to work on his master’s degree at UC San Diego.
Seeking a respite from constant studying, he began writing short stories for relaxation. To his “vast surprise,” they began selling. “It was a pleasant hobby, but I just wanted to get my research done and get out into the real world.”
After earning a doctorate from UCSD in 1967, Benford went to work as a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory but left after four years to join the faculty at UCI.
“I wanted more freedom of movement so that I could work on whatever I wanted to,” says Benford, who several years ago added a more down-to-earth subject to his research agenda: the increasing loss of species. “We’re losing them at the rate of a roughly a dozen species a day,” says Benford, who will chair a National Academy of Sciences workshop at UCI in October that will examine strategies for the conservation of biodiversity.
Benford, who writes evenings and weekends, still views writing as a hobby. His “slow and steady” approach, however, pays a high rate of literary dividends.
Since 1970, he has had 17 novels published, including “Beyond the Fall of Night,” which he co-wrote with sci-fi master Arthur C. Clarke. Benford and Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka, maintain a regular correspondence in which they discuss scientific and literary matters.
The paperback edition of Benford’s 1993 Orange County-set novel “Chiller"--a suspense novel about cryonically freezing people for possible revival, which he wrote under the pseudonym Sterling Blake--will be out in mid-September from Bantam.
Benford, who also has a collection of short stories due out from Bantam in December, just turned in the manuscript for the sixth and final volume in his “Galactic Center” series, and he’s already thinking about his next writing project: a nonfiction book about the implications of modern technologies on the far future.
Despite what he sees as a “anti-rational, anti-scientific” stance in contemporary American society--"the standard plot structure in films and novels is ‘secret government technology goes bad’ "--Benford maintains a positive view of the future, a vision that is reflected in his novels.
It’s not the role of science-fiction writers to look into the future and provide solutions to problems, Benford says, “but by sketching a future you want to at least imply solutions, unless you’re just going to write about a future in which everything breaks down and collapses.”
The best science fiction, he says, “is scientifically accurate, stylistically adroit and also emotionally fulfilling as it looks at where we’re going. I mean, the only thing we have control over is where we’re going.
“What’s changed in my time is that the fundamental moral questions of our society have come to be framed in terms of ‘If this goes on, what then? ' That wasn’t the cast of literature of 100 or even 50 years ago. Most literature is about, ‘Hey, this happened.’ Which is fun, but. . .”
Background: Born in Mobile, Ala.; lives in Laguna Beach.
Family: Married to Joan Benford; 23-year-old daughter, Alyson; and 21-year-old son, Mark.
Passions: Swimming, surfing, scuba diving, backpacking, traveling.
On the appeal of writing science fiction: “It’s the chance to exercise imagination and to think beyond the ordinary. Conventional fiction is fine, but it doesn’t stretch you. And often it’s about problems of the past, and the thing about the problems of the past is you can be concerned about them, but you don’t have to do anything. It’s the literary equivalent of easy-listening music. It demands no effort on your part.”
On the lowered emphasis on teaching science in American schools: “State management of education enforces a mediocrity that militates against science education. That’s the short answer. You have to pay science teachers more, and state-run mechanisms won’t, so they don’t get very good teachers. Big surprise.”
On whether he’s better known as a scientist or an author: “Any writer is better known than almost any scientist, but is that the measure? That makes movie stars the most prominent people in the world. I think they’re kind of comparable careers. I certainly spend much more time on physics than I do on writing.”