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Worlds Vast and Various
Gregory Benford
HarperCollins EOS Books, 320 pages

Worlds Vast and Various
Gregory Benford
Gregory Benford is a physicist and astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of a series of hard SF novels, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1978) and following quickly with works such as Timescape (1980) and the popular Galactic Centre series, including Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989) and Furious Gulf (1994).

Gregory Benford Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Eater
SF Site Review: Deep Time
SF Site Review: Against Infinity
SF Site Review: Artifact
SF Site Review: Cosm
SF Site Review: Foundation's Fear

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Marc Goldstein

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I discovered Gregory Benford, a physics professor at UC Irvine and a Nebula and Campbell award-winning writer, through Timescape, his classic time-travel novel. Benford impressed me with his thoughtful character development as much as his estimable technical knowledge. His ability to combine sympathetic characters with hard-science speculation makes him an especially valuable writer. Worlds Vast and Various collects twelve of his previously published short stories. It's an up-and-down collection vis-a-vis tone and quality: some stories burst with evocative scientific speculation, while others coast along on breezy charm. Most do touch on Benford's pet themes: confrontation with the unknown, depictions of work-life, and the breakdown of conceptual barriers.

Worlds Vast and Various begins ominously with "A Calculus of Desperation," one of the compilation's bleaker tales. The story follows a scientist collecting endangered species from the rain forest before the tractors come to plow the foliage down. Meanwhile, in Africa, his wife joins relief workers treating victims of a mysterious epidemic. It's difficult to reveal any more without giving away the story's surprises. The revelations are genuinely shocking, the implications all the more terrifying because they are based on real biological research.

In "Big as the Ritz," Benford apes the sardonic prose style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, making for one of the collection's more light-hearted efforts. Astrophysics student Clayton Donner is invited by a co-ed to join her on a trip to a mysterious satellite colony created by her father. No scientist has ever been allowed to visit the colony, so Clayton conceals his major from his girlfriend and agrees to accompany her. Upon arrival, Clayton discovers that the colony consists of an artificial ring spinning around a thumbnail size black hole (which allows Benford to throw in some conjecture about the by-products of super-novas). The occupants of the colony are a group of clones who live in a uniform, egalitarian society. Benford takes the opportunity to satirize the excesses of socialism. It's pretty mild stuff, but raised hackles when it was published in the British SF magazine Interzone.

Originally published in 1970, "The Scarred Man" is by far the oldest of the stories in this collection. Not surprisingly, it is also the weakest (the bulk of the narrative being comprised of a huge block of expository dialogue). Inspired by Benford's work on the ARPANet project during the late 60s, the "The Scarred Man" is remarkable for how accurately it describes the mechanisms and implications of computer viruses -- 13 years before Dr. Fred Cohen "officially" coined the phrase.

In "Worm in the Well" prospector Claire Ambrase takes on a dangerous scientific mission in order to pay off her debts. Her mission is to photograph a wormhole that has appeared on the surface of the sun. "Worm in the Well" is essentially an amiable adventure yarn, but holds many charms. Benford weaves some impressive astrophysics concerning wormholes, magnetism, and gravitational effects. Claire is a strong and enjoyable protagonist. Her interaction with her spaceship's AI, named Erma, injects some droll humour into the story as well.

"Word Vast, World Various" and "A Dance to Strange Musics" are thematic siblings, sharing as a common ancestor Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. In Solaris, Lem argued that traditional human modes of inquiry would be incapable of yielding any useful insight when confronted with an entity that is truly alien -- skewering the time-honoured SF assumption that aliens could be easily understood. "Word Vast, World Various" and "A Dance to Strange Musics" are both first contact stories that focus on the inability of the human characters to penetrate the mysteries of the aliens they encounter.

In "Word Vast, World Various," a delegation of Japanese scientists attempt to make contact with the humanoid inhabitants of the planet Chujo, only to become frustrated when the Chujoans refuse to acknowledge the human delegates. Benford's decision to make his scientists all Japanese supports the tale's themes in a couple of ways: it punctures the assumptions of American readers by challenging the supposition that their country will always dominate world matters, and the rigidity of Japanese social customs underlines the failure of traditional scientific paradigms to illuminate the puzzling behaviour of the Chujoans. The ending strikes an upbeat note as the scientists realize that by shedding their prejudices, they have the opportunity to discover something truly new.

"A Dance to Strange Musics" draws this theme to a far darker conclusion. While surveying the planet Shiva, the crew of the starship Adventurer discovers a massive lake that appears to be suspended in mid-air. Their investigation leads them to a bizarre race of crab-like polygon-shaped creatures, whose hive-like society defies interpretation. Benford tells this tale with a merciless eye toward his premise and its conclusions. He willfully disregards any attempt at characterization, refusing the reader any comfort derived from likable, sympathetic characters. Here the scientists not only grow embittered by their inability to understand the ecology of Shiva, but become jaded by the existential horror of confronting an alien race that may be as vastly superior to us as we are to amoebas.

Like "Word Vast, World Various" and "A Dance to Strange Musics," "High Abyss" deals with the notion of conceptual breakthrough. The story centres around the inhabitants of a cylindrical planet enveloped with a permanent opaque cloud layer called The Vault. A mathematician, slyly named Lambda, has devised an experiment to test his theories: a hot-air balloon that will carry him above The Vault, allowing him to view what lies beyond. Lambda's proposal sparks a civil war between his followers and a group of religious zealots, which includes his former mentor. "High Abyss" clearly owes a debt to Isaac Asimov's classic "Nightfall," but offers a more upbeat conclusion: those who cannot suffer the loss of their old paradigms will fall away; the rest will claim the future.

Worlds Vast and Various provides a satisfying survey of Benford's short fiction. A few of the smaller, lighter tales seem trivial and one-dimensional compared with the more ambitious works. However, the merit of the stories mentioned above make this a valuable collection. If you have enjoyed any of Benford's novels, you will certainly find Worlds Vast and Various rewarding: like Benford's best work it offers adventures to thrill, characters to love, and ideas to stir the imagination.

Copyright © 2000 by Marc Goldstein

Marc is the SF Site Games Editor and the principal contributor to the SF Site's Role Playing Department. Marc lives in Santa Ana, California with his wife, Sabrina and cat, Onion.


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