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A Conversation With Gregory Benford
An interview with Stephen M. Davis

Gregory Benford
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 Center series, including Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989) and Furious Gulf (1994). A recent work is Foundation's Fear, an authorized continuation of Asimov's Foundation series.

Gregory Benford Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Cosm


Foundation's Fear

I read a brief bio of you that mentioned you were involved in trying to bring the WorldCon to Dallas in the late fifties. You would have been, what, seventeen or eighteen at the time?
Yeah. Seventeen or eighteen, exactly.

Do you remember why Dallas lost the bid?
Well, it lost a few years later because, I think, Chicago had a better bid, and also because the Dallas Futurian Society fell apart. I went off to university, and other people went off, and we were kind of the people holding it together and the rest of the people just dissolved. Our big peak was the Southwestern Con, which was held in July of 1958, two months before the WorldCon. That was the first Con ever put on in Texas. I have the weird distinction of having been the instigator of the first Con in Texas and the first Con in Germany.

The German convention was in fact in '56.

Were you a fan of science fiction before you knew you wanted to make a career in science?
Yes. I started reading SF when I was probably nine or eight.

Who were the authors you were reading then? I'm assuming Asimov, Bradbury...
Well, actually my first discovery was Heinlein, and then later Bradbury and Clarke, and then Asimov.

So, you were attracted to the guys who were writing -- well, I want to say in the "hard sf" mode, but I imagine that wasn't as popular as it became later.
Oh, yeah. That's certainly the case. But remember, hard SF -- there was something like it then, but there wasn't nearly the feeling of specialization. I mean, the field was not nearly so self-aware then.

I guess it was a little more pulp-driven in the fifties.
Definitely. But hard SF emerged as an ideology only in the very late fifties, early sixties, to some extent in response to the New Wave. I mean it was the kind of thing people had been doing, but not naming.

Do you think your interest in science fiction is what drove you toward a career in science?
Oh, sure. That's true of a very large number of scientists. I've checked, and I'd say fifty percent of those I've asked read it avidly.

Now that you've managed to have success both as a physicist and a novelist, if you had to make a choice, would you rather have the world remember you as a physicist or as a science fiction writer?
I think as a writer, because scientists generally have little of themselves carried forward in their work. Most people don't, when they talk about DNA, think about Watson and Crick anymore. And it's because of the application of science to the larger world that it does not contain the stylistic idiosyncrasy of the arts, generally. So, scientific immortality is of a different kind.

So it doesn't even do you any good if you have a process named after you? Will we be talking about Dyson spheres long after we've forgotten who Dyson is?
Quite possibly so. Look at say, Hobson's Choice. Who was Hobson? He was a guy who ran a stable in Cambridge. His choice was that he had one horse, and he'd tell you that you could have any horse you want... just choose one.

[Laughter] Sounds like Ford's Choice: you can have any color car you want, as long as it's black.
That's right, but people have forgotten who Hobson was, though we still have Hobson's Choice.

Is there one particular award or achievement in science or science fiction that you're especially proud of?
I'm proud of receiving two Nebulas, and in the sciences, winning the Lord Foundation.

I wanted to ask you about that. What is involved in that prize?
Well, the Lord Foundation gives a set of awards, I think every three years. I got the one for contributions to science, generally. It's very nice. They bring you to Pittsburgh. They have this huge, formal dinner out in the middle of the Carnegie Museum. They give you a painting of yourself. There's a wonderful reception and some cash, and they take such good care of you. They fly you out first class and give you a limousine and driver for as long as you want. We stayed for five days. I mean we went out and saw the Robert Frost home, Falling Waters, and it was just a great time. I had never been to Pittsburgh.

OK, now this is kind of a naïve question, I'm sure, but keep in mind that I had to go through all the sciences as a college freshman before I found one I could pass courses in: Has physics reached the point where, even if we don't know all the answers, we at least know all the questions?
No. We don't even know the right questions, I think, for many of the major issues. I don't think our way of seeing the universe is the last way. The fact is there are some questions that are so hard to solve, especially concerning origins of the universe. Looking at the problem of the origin of life, for example, suggests that we're asking the question the wrong way.

Do you see an area of physics that offers the most potential for a break-through or discovery that would alter the way we live or think about the universe?
Uhm... wow. [Laughter] I would say that the physics of information. Everything such as... where does information go when it falls into a black hole? We really just don't have a clue. We don't know what happens to all the physically conserved things that fall into a black hole and don't come out. What law of conservation is obeyed in all this we don't know.

Let me move on to your latest book, Cosm. Through some strange quirk the book I read immediately before Cosm was a non-fiction work by someone whose name I can't remember at the moment. I think it was called The Last Three Minutes.
Oh. Paul Davies.

The author mentions false and true vacuums and as I understood it, the idea was that we might be living in a bubble of false vacuum, and that if a particle from our bubble bridges across to the true vacuum, everything in our universe comes to an end. Now, you've put a little bit of a different twist on this in Cosm, and I wondered if you could explain your use of the theory.
Well, basically, instead of our living in a false vacuum, I say that this experiment at Brookhaven, upcoming in seven more years, has a small possibility of creating essentially a whole new universe in its own separated out space-time and leaving behind just a narrow bridge. None of this is my idea. These are calculations that a number of physicists have published in the literature, and it caught my attention in the early '90s. And I simply take this and say, if it's true, what would follow: What are the huge philosophical issues? What is your moral posture if you have created a universe? Are you responsible for all the good and evil that occurs in it? What does good and evil mean? How can you tell? You can't even see individual people in this universe, if they exist.

Do you think that Alicia Butterworth's discovery, what she christens the Cosm, is just a flight of fancy, or is it the sort of thing you wholly expect to be reading about in Scientific American someday?
Well, I think in terms of theory, I'll certainly be reading about it, because the theory is too interesting to leave alone. Now, whether we actually produce one or not is up for grabs. That's the reason people worry about this. I think the chances are small, because you're trying to produce an incredibly dense mass energy. But we don't know quantum mechanically what the probability is that we can, as we say, tunnel through to that state.

After I'd finished reading Cosm, I re-read an essay by Oscar Wilde called "The Decay of Lying," and in that essay Wilde states that "there is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true." Now, you're a physicist at the University of California, Irvine, writing about a physicist at the University of California, Irvine. Do you find that looking into a mirror, so to speak, as you write, is more of a help or a hindrance to you in creating your novel's reality?
Well, it's a great deal of help, actually, because all kinds of local details come readily to hand. However, Alicia Butterworth is really not me. Some reviewers seem to have been confused about this.

I thought Max Jalon was probably you, actually.
Well, more like me. But, I deliberately portrayed [Alicia Butterworth] as being a really bothered personality, someone who's irritable, with an odd set of opinions, that are not necessarily my opinions. One in particular kept trying to attribute her views to me.

I think even I did that in my review, and I realize there's a danger and a fallacy in attributing things that characters say or do to the actions or views of the author, but one of the reasons why that might be the case is that many of the characters seem kind of amoral, in the sense that there doesn't seem to be a lot of positive images in the book. That was one of my questions for you: Is the novel's reality your own world-view, or is it more "through a glass darkly"? And I think you just answered it.

Do you believe the universe is the result of intelligent design and forethought, the serendipitous by-product of an alien science experiment, or simply a completely random, if fortuitous, event?

I think the first of the choices. The fact that the universe has law in it implies that there is an ordering principle.

So you're not inclined to Max Jalon's view at the end of the book?
No, though it's fun.

That was one thing that confused me that I mentioned in my review. In that particular section, I couldn't tell if you were being very dead-pan or giving the reader something that Max Jalon is just having some fun with.
Both. I mean, he supposes it, and at that point, I wanted the readers to catch on to the idea. Whether that's amusing or not is a matter of taste.

I had two more questions to ask. One of these is that there are a lot of negative things voiced in the book. What are some things you look at positively, and do you think Alicia would look positively on the same things?
Well, there's always students, and reaching people in a new way. It's the tendency of universities to become not just bureaucracies, but top-down structures, that I dislike. The students are a good antidote to that.

I imagine over the last month you've been asked a lot of questions about Cosm at signings and readings. Is there one question you wish someone had asked you that nobody has?
No one has asked me why I chose to use a black protagonist, and the answer was, I wanted someone who was different, and who actually violated the conventions. Her opinions don't fit any rule.

Actually, I found the black protagonist refreshing, because it let you do some things that I think if your protagonist had been white, you would have had people picketing outside your office. I especially found her comments about Maya Angelou to be refreshing and possibly truer than even she intended.
Oh, indeed. There, actually, I agree with Alicia. I've always thought Maya Angelou was a dreadful poet. Now the Washington Post review called me out on exactly that issue. Called it "mean-spirited" to regard Maya Angelou as being anything but a wonderful poet, but in fact, she's dreadful.

Do you think that may be the reason -- not the Maya Angelou part -- why no one has asked you that question; because to ask it is to indicate that maybe the questioner is somehow not quite "with it"?
Sure. I think you're undoubtedly right about that. People are uncomfortable about it. I'm not uncomfortable about racial issues. I grew up among blacks....

Where did you grow up?
Southern Alabama.

I guess you're like me, then. I haven't managed to pick up a southern accent, yet.
I can change my accent any time you want. [Dr. Benford says this in a Southern drawl.]

[Laughing] And sometimes when you're in the South, that's very useful. Well, listen, I want to thank you for your time this evening. I know you've probably got some things you need to do.

It sounds a little like you found something to eat.
Yes, actually I'm eating some almonds. By the way, I missed your review. Where did you say it was up?

It's the SF Site at And you'll probably discover I'm a little out-spoken, but I mentioned I thought the book was well-structured and it's one of the few things I've seen recently that I read in a couple sittings. I actually put some stuff off to get through it.
Well, great. That's the kind of response I want. My actual name for this book is a scientific suspense novel. This one isn't really a thriller. That's why I was surprised when we got a really good movie deal for it about four weeks ago from FOX.

So, major release type movie, not made-for-TV type movie?
No. A feature-length film.

My suspicion is they would love it, because I can't remember a lot of scenes where they're going to have to do a lot of special effects.
There are now.

Oh, really?
They had me write in the treatment a whole new third act, so now there's a whole new ending where things get much worse.

That was one thing. I thought it was a little bit of a cop-out when you left that enormous sphere at the end.
That's exactly what they said. "This is a second ticking bomb you can use."

Well, I'm definitely looking forward to that. I'm trying to figure out who they will cast as Alicia Butterworth.
Uh, Angela Bassett. Well, that's who they've been talking about. In fact, I just got done with a conference call to Dustin Hoffman's people as a possibility for Max. Well, I'm trying not to worry about it. On to the next project.

What is the next project?
I'm doing a novel for Avon, the working title of which is Eater.

[At this point, realizing that it was dinner time on the West coast, I let Dr. Benford go.]

Copyright © 1998 by Stephen M. Davis

Steve is faculty member in the English department at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, S.C. He holds a master's in English Literature from Clemson University. He was voted by his high school class as Most Likely to Become a Young Curmudgeon.

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