As part of an extended study of science, science fiction, and society, I interviewed 24 science fiction authors during the second half of 2015. Those interviews focused on how authors conceptualized their role linking science to society and how they expressed that role through authorial intent. Out of the authors I interviewed, the response from Gregory Benford on the topic of representing science and the scientist was like a distilled version of the whole conversation. Benford is a prolific and award-winning science fiction author, but he is first and foremost a scientist. As he put it, “I never really considered becoming a full-time science fiction writer. I just always thought it would be a fun hobby and then I got interested in it again in the middle of graduate school and kept at it over the years, but I have always put my academic career first.” (Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes of Benford are from a personal interview conducted on 10 December 2015.)
There is a great deal of interest in the representations of the scientist and science in science fiction. Those representations in and of themselves are significant (Long and Steinke, 1996; Petkova and Boyadjieva, 1994; Van Gorp, Rommes, and Emons, 2014). However, when combined with the fact that science fiction authors often write with clear social and political intent, those representations also speak to the broader question of how science fiction authors conceptualize their role as actors in the space between science and society.
The most obvious examples of authorial intent can be seen in the cautionary tales that have been essential to the genre from its earliest incarnations. However, the ways in which authorial intent manifests itself in science fiction are as boundless as the stories, and the authorial intent behind representations of the future is such a common feature of science fiction that it could be considered a defining aspect of the genre. Science fiction authors translocate socially contentious, controversial, or emotionally charged topics such as race or same-sex relationships onto safer subjects such as robots or aliens. They do this with the specific intention of creating the social and conceptual distance needed to more dispassionately explore the related social, moral, and political implications (per Kevin Anderson, interviewed 21 August 2015). Utopian visions of the future such as the central conceit of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek are created with explicit intent to inspire those who would help attain them (per David Gerrold, interviewed 21 August 2015). Stories about challenges to the very survival of our species such as David Brin’s Earth (1990) or Existence (2012) are offered as investigations into how we might be able overcome those looming crises (per Brin, interviewed 10 December 2015).
Benford’s career demonstrates his commitment to being a scientist first. A Professor Emeritus of physics at the University of California, Irvine, Benford has over 200 research publications in plasma physics, astrophysics, and theoretical physics and several notable academic awards and honors. These academic accomplishments are even more striking than his enviable array of science fiction achievements. Other scientists have written novels—Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Fred Hoyle, and many others. However, few have written anywhere near as much science fiction as Benford. That duality of career experiences provides a unique perspective on the question of representing science and the scientist.
The two dozen interviews I conducted were semi-structured conversational interviews organized around the following six prompts, which were always delivered in the following order. The authors were asked to discuss:
Prior to the interviews, the respondents were informed that the interviews were part of a study of popular culture, science, and society.
Most of the interviews were conducted at the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington with a few additional interviews conducted via Skype or by phone in the months following the convention.
The interview with Gregory Benford was one of the last conducted. I had met Benford at a handful of science fiction conventions, and we had had a few casual conversations prior to this interview. Those conversations were primarily about quirks of the latest cosmological theories and technical aspects of issues related to astrophysics. While some might consider those to be some very odd topics for casual conversation, if you add a relaxed and friendly demeanor, the fact that Benford considers them topics of casual conversation probably says more about him than his biography.
Despite those earlier conversations, it would be incorrect to say that we were even acquaintances. I knew very little about Benford, and with the thousands of people that he meets at conventions, he would have been very hard-pressed to even recall that we had previously talked.
Authorial Intent and the Representation of the Scientist
These science fiction authors as a group are passionately committed to creating accurate and reasonable representations of scientists. As might be obvious from the second question/prompt, the expectation going into the study was that there would be a variety of reluctant compromises and perhaps a pattern in the way that the imperatives of storytelling forced these authors to distort the reality of science or the scientist. There were some common compromises they made on the procedural and factual aspects of science, but they were surprisingly minor, and in terms of depicting scientists as characters, exactly the opposite was true. All of the authors interviewed explicitly and passionately expressed the intent to represent the reality of scientists as people and as professionals as faithfully as they could in their characters. This commitment was frequently demonstrated by anecdotal examples of the efforts they have made to get those representations right. They all reported extensive efforts to consult with scientists, and they discussed how they applied their personal experiences from interacting with researchers and scientists. In that context, Benford’s comments on representing the scientist, most of which were made before the question that directly asked about compromises, are simply the most informed and detailed expressions of the norm from the interviews.
From the very first comment he made in the interview, Benford refers to bringing the reality of the scientific endeavor into his fiction. “To me, science and science fiction have always been intertwined.” In terms of representing scientists as characters in his fiction, he couches this linkage in terms of how his experience as a working scientist gives him something unique to share through his science fiction. “Most of my fiction has been from the point of view of a scientist confronted with a new discovery or a new situation, and it looks at how the scientist looks at it and deals with it. I just used my experience as a graduate student and then a postdoc for Edward Teller and then as a faculty member at the University of California, Irvine.”
It would be easy and probably natural for a science fiction author to express a commitment to accurately representing scientists in fiction. However, Benford, like almost all of the other authors interviewed, is quick to offer anecdotal examples of efforts he has made, and he provides several examples of representations in his fiction. Benford is unique among the authors in the depth and extent of his personal experience with scientists. The intensity of his passion when discussing his commitment to faithfully bringing that experience into his fiction would be difficult to overstate, and there is ample evidence that he has been effective in bringing that reality into his fiction. As one example:
My best-known novel, Timescape, is a form of concealed autobiography. Half of the novel is written from the point of view of a young assistant professor working at UC San Diego in 1962–63, and in that part, twins, who are essentially my brother and me, appear in the background as irritating students who take up too much of his time. That is basically combining my graduate and early career experiences, while the other half is set in Cambridge, England, in the future, and that is based on my sabbatical leave to Cambridge in the mid-1970s. That was my first example of writing an entire novel that was just about scientists at work. That kind of solidified my view of what science fiction could do and what I could do within it.
At Cambridge, I met Martin Ryle and Tony Hewish, who had won the Nobel Prize earlier for their discovery of pulsars. I wrote an essay on a dinner party that Martin Rees hosted. When my wife and I arrived, I realized that here was Stephen Hawking and his wife, and over there was Paul Dirac and his wife. I wrote a whole essay about that dinner party because, to me, those people ... that’s a part of science and the reality of the scientist that people need to see. And I use that sort of thing in my novels. I had disguised versions of many of my friends, and some not so disguised, in my novels. Several members of my department went through Timescape, trying to guess who was who, and I must have got it right because many of them made correct guesses.
Perhaps most notable was that all of the noted comments and anecdotes from Benford arose as part of his origin story. When we eventually reached the prompt about compromises made for storytelling, he simply said “No” and offered the following comment in lieu of an explanation: “Scientists are just as quirky and individualist and eccentric as artists; they just learn to hide it better and that reality often surprises people.”
While the depth of experience Benford brings to the representation of scientists is unique, it must be emphasized that this intensity of commitment is typical of those interviewed. Even when the conversation moved into a discussion of the nature of fictional characters and real people and how by necessity that forces characters to differ from real people, this commitment to an accurate representation remains steadfast. Benford made several comments along these lines. But of all the interview subjects, Steven Barnes put it best:
Yeah, characters are always a little bit flatter than real people. You can never completely capture the depth of that lifetime of experiences that are part of a real person, but the character can still represent the truth, just like a photograph can represent the truth of what you see, even though that two-dimensional image can’t capture the depth of what you see with your eyes. (Interviewed 22 August 2015)
Representing Science as a Process and Profession
Benford expanded his discussion into this area while he was still responding to the very first prompt about his origin story. Nearly everything he said about representing scientists was part of his origin story and he made several comments about representing science during that portion of the interview. This suggests that the intent, commitment, and passion on the topic are inherent to how he conceptualizes himself as a science fiction author. Again he emphasized bringing his experiences into the stories. It began with a few comments interspersed between his anecdotes about representing himself and real scientists as characters:
I try to share that moment of reverence when you find yourself in one of those places at the pinnacle of science or in an argument with one of the great minds of the time.
I like the sweet spot of finding a way to show scientists at work and at the same time illustrate the science they’re working on.
He mentioned the process and profession of science numerous times in his origin story, and like his commentary on representing the scientist as a person, he dropped in anecdotes that can serve as evidence that his depictions resonated with other scientists. For example:
I try to use the real way that rivalries work in academia so that pitched battles are carried out on the backs of something else. In fact, someone came up to me years ago and said, “I can’t believe you had the balls to have an entire chapter which is just the thesis examination of a student, and the faculty are plainly fighting with each other through the student.” The thesis examination is supposed to be about the student, but it’s really about the fight. I’ve seen exactly that happen, and that’s the kind of insight you don’t get unless you’ve been down in the academic trenches.
When prompted about compromises made in representing science, he extended those comments significantly.
The most common compromise is to compress time for narrative concision. Whereas real science has lots of dead time and stuff doesn’t work and experiments take a long time to run and you don’t get the funding.... I use that, as a leitmotif in the background, particularly in Timescape, where funding is always the big issue. But narratively I often skip steps that you really would have to trudge through in, say, an academic research environment. You would be held up by the bureaucracy; chairman and dean have to approve the application before you send it out and all that. I tend to compress that or omit it. But even then, I try not to take it too far, and I kind of still try to show the reality. I remember one time (in Timescape) I have a scientist walking the proposal through each stage himself, meaning he didn’t rely on the usual method; he took it from one person to the next and made his pitch in person and got the signature and went on. He got it through the entire university process in one day, whereas it would normally take weeks.
Later in the interview, he came back to the depiction of science but in an indirect way.
Authors are often criticized for writing about scientific discovery and insight as if it were magic, but that kind of is the way it often works.... Some of the passages I’ve written are about what it feels like to do a mathematical calculation, to blunder your way through and then have a sudden moment where the calculation works and you have that revelation.... There’s a wonderful couple pages in the biography of Schrödinger in which they reproduce the notes in his little notebook. Over a weekend, when he was off with his mistress up in the mountains, he was trying to figure out the wave equation for matter. Which is exactly what a scientist would do when spending a weekend up in the mountains with his mistress. So he sits down and writes K would go like ... and omega would go like, and he realizes that has to be a first derivative in time but a second derivative in space, and there’s the Schrödinger equation. Of course when he published the paper, he had this derivation and all this mathematical ground work and detail, blah, blah, blah. But the way he actually invented it was this a-ha moment and a few scribbled notes, so maybe that magical scientific epiphany isn’t as far off base as critics might claim. For me, it isn’t.
Compromises on Science as Knowledge
Benford’s commitment to the accuracy of his representations of scientific knowledge is another thing he makes absolutely clear from the very beginning of the interview. It is first offered in the way he defines what he writes. “I primarily write hard science fiction. Which is to say scientifically scrupulous science fiction that at the very least doesn’t contravene the laws of the universe and has some respect for the way those laws are found.”
He reiterated this point several times, often using comments about “science that is plausible in the context of what we know and believe to be true,” but in this he deviates slightly from what many of the other authors said about storytelling compromises in the representation of scientific knowledge. Most of the interviewed authors mention a handful of what writers often refer to as “MacGuffins,” narrative fictions that are not scientifically sound but are accepted in the genre. Faster-than-light travel and communication are two of the most commonly mentioned. Benford, however, eschews the idea, noting that even with time travel, he sticks to what the current science says is possible.
Benford said that he didn’t see anything wrong with those MacGuffins, noting that readers and writers all know them when they see them, but it simply was not something that he did.
Between Science and Society
Again, the idea that Benford explicitly conceptualized a role for the science fiction author as intermediary between science and society arose early and spontaneously in his origin story.
I think science fiction writers are uniquely positioned to be the intermediary between science and society. That’s one of the reasons that science fiction has become an enormously popular genre because there’s an anxiety, largely unexpressed, among the public about the importance of science and technology, but it is difficult to translate the actual work of science into something that even an engaged and interested person can grasp. That is where science fiction excels.
Further emphasizing the point that this commitment to bridging the gap between science and society is not simply a response to the perceived focus of the interview or an affectation of the genre, Benford spoke at length about the various ways in which he has thought about how science fiction serves to link science and society. Coming from a practicing astrophysicist, his final comment on the topic was intriguingly political and philosophical:
Two hundred years ago, nobody would have believed that scientists would be the big driver in human society. They would think it would be the clergy, the wealthy or political elites, but no one would have imagined scientists would be driving things as much as they do, almost from behind the curtain. Science fiction writers stand between these mysterious scientists and society. They bring the scientists and the science to society.
Douglas A. Van Belle lives in Wellington, New Zealand.
Long, Marilee, & Steinke, Jocelyn. (1996). “The Thrill of Everyday Science: Images of Science and Scientists on Children’s Educational Science Programmes in the United States.” Public Understanding of Science, 5(2).
Van Gorp, B., Rommes, E., & Emons, P. (2014). “From the Wizard to the Doubter: Prototypes of Scientists and Engineers in Fiction and Non-Fiction Media Aimed at Dutch Children and Teenagers.” Public Understanding of Science, 23(6).