The Best Of Gregory Benford edited by David. G. Hartwell (book review).

October 17, 2016 | By | Reply More

‘The Best Of Gregory Benford’ contains thirty-eight stories by Gregory Benford which he and editor David G. Hartwell reckon to be his best. I read the whole thing but will pick out the highlights. In the interesting ‘Afterword’, Benford splits the stories into three categories but I’ll just run through them as they appeared, in chronological order.

bestofgregorybenford

‘Doing Lennon’ (1975) is an interesting story for a Beatles fan as it has a chap pulling a long sleep scam. Frozen by Immortality Incorporated, Henry Fielding wakes up in 2108 and tells them he’s John Lennon, frozen under a false name to escape persecution by the government. He wakes in a clean, bright, sterilised future. Henry was a crooked stockbroker but life as a rock star is more fun and, like Lennon, he’s adept at one-liners. Written in 1975, before poor John’s ultimate fate was known, this has some good guesses at his future. It’s a clever story with a neat twist.

In ‘Dark Sanctuary’ (1979), an asteroid miner comes across something unusual at work. This is set in one of those futures where enterprising humanity moves out into the solar system and prospers, though the story is not about that. The background contrasts sharply with that of ‘A Desperate Calculus’ (1995) that appears later in the book. Like many SF writers, Asimov is a prime example, Benford may have been getting less optimistic about our future as the present unfolded

Hard Science Fiction writers are not normally deemed poetic but when they are and the scientific knowledge and sense of wonder are combined with beautiful language, it’s a great accomplishment. Benford achieves this often but does it especially well in ‘Time’s Rub (1985). In a distant future, two figures flee the deadly Laggenmorphs in the aftermath of a battle they have lost. Xen is a mere functionary but Faz was the leader of the rebel side. Both are a mix of flesh and robot. They encounter an immortal intelligence made up of magnetic fields who plays a game with them. A pure joy to read unless you’re a writer, in which case you will weep with envy.

‘Centigrade 233’ (1990) is a riff on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and a very good one, too. The excellent library of Science Fiction magazines that the protagonist inherits would make any fan of the Golden Age weep with envy. It’s sad fate is implied in the title but the reason for it is highly original.

‘World Vast, World Various’ (1992) is a novelette in which a group of Japanese scientists study primitive hunter-gatherers on one of a pair of binary worlds orbiting a red sun. The science is as exact as ever. The planet has the ruins of great cities and other signs of an old culture but it’s not clear if the primitives are that same race gone backwards or a new race. Here, Benford looks at a very alien culture through the eyes of an alien culture, the Japanese, though one he clearly knows well. The story dates from 1992, a period when Japan seemed ascendant and the United States watched it, with fear and fascination, it‘s astonishing productivity and technical advances.

‘In The Dark Backward’(1993) has a literary historian from the future making a strictly forbidden trip back in time to tell Shakespeare, a few days before his death, that his work will live on forever, just to make him feel good. She then goes on to speak to another famous writer but eventually…well, I won’t give away the ending. The past is realistically portrayed and Benford continues to write poetically with a distinct fondness for alliteration: ‘song swept by on the stirring wind’.

Partners Amy and Todd feature in ‘A Desperate Calculus’(1995). They are both scientists working in the field. She’s in Africa trying to combat a ‘flu’ virus and he’s in South America collecting insect and other species before deforestation wipes them out. Not sure if it’s set in 1995 or the near future but, either way, there is much musing on the catastrophic consequences of humanities unfettered breeding and destruction of the Earth’s habitat. Timely back then, this has become really urgent now. Programmed to have babies, we will keep doing it until we choke the planet. Hey ho!

‘Zoomers’ (1996) is a sort of cyberpunk thing about two clever dicks playing the market, spotting trends, making money, creating nothing, making nothing, growing nothing and feeding off the rest of us. The market was sacred back then. One would hope that since the taxpayers round the world had to bail out the banks and the markets in 2008 and we’re still paying. they might have lost some of their sacred cow status. Unfortunately, they haven’t.

‘The Voice’ (1997) has people unable to read. It’s set in a far distant future that doesn’t seem so distant now. Everyone has implants and a voice in their ear gives them any information they need as they go about their daily life. The old signs are still there, ‘Passage Denied’ is the first example given but while Quent hears the words as usual, his friend Kiera can read them. She has learned to read while studying. They discover another reader and there’s a nice twist at the end. The dying out of everyday skills we take for granted is always a good hook for an SF story. Asimov did one in which people had forgotten how to do handwriting and another, ’It’s Such A Beautiful Day’, in which people teleported everywhere and ignored the natural world.

‘Slow Symphonies Of Mass And Time’ (1998) was written for an anthology in tribute to Roger Zelazny. A Galactic Empire of the far future is made possible by wormholes. These are not simple tunnels from one place to another, as in ‘Deep Space Nine’, but labyrinthine and hard to navigate. Older ones are stable but smaller wormholes pop up now and then, narrow and dangerous. On the run from an opposing political faction, Governor Zeb and his able consort, Fyrna, flee across the galaxy pursued by an admiral. A marvellous evocation of both the cosmic wonders that may await us and the inescapable primate instincts that will forever shape our politics.

‘A Dance To Strange Musics’ (1998) is a fantastic piece of world-building, the world being in the Alpha Centauri system in this case. The mystery starts with a lake floating ten kilometres above its continent, suspended by…what? There’s no single protagonist but Benford takes the omniscient narrator view as he follows several of the brave explorers. Slowly, the nature of the planet becomes clear and it’s terrifying, at least to humans.

There’s are fewer big stories in this collection from after the millennium, possibly because Benford was focusing on novels. There are some nice shorter shorts, some mildly amusing or raising philosophical or religious points in a humorous way. I’ll just pick a couple of the longer ones.

In ‘Twenty-Two Centimetres’(2004), Julie and Al investigate a counter-Earth in a universe twenty-two centimetres from our own but in a direction not easily travelled. Only gravity passes between the dimensions until scientists manage to open a gateway. It is much colder on counter-Earth but there is life on another brilliantly imagined planet.

‘The Sigma Structure Symphony’(2012) is about a research institute on the Moon that’s studying the vast databanks we will one day have of communications from other stars. These are immensely complicated and difficult to interpret and there are teams of men and women employed in the work. Ruth takes over the analysis of some data from a man who committed suicide after working on it. Noteworthy that interstellar travel is ruled out here and interstellar communication is the focus. There’s a school of thought in SF that space opera is fantasy and true Science Fiction should focus on what’s really possible. As usual with Benford, this is both interesting scientifically and touching in human terms.

Eventually, a reviewer must run out of superlatives and sorting the gems from a book that is entirely gems is futile. If I praised every story that deserves it, the review would run very long. It’s probably too long already. Subterranean Press have done the world a favour in bringing this bumper anthology to us and it’s a great buy for any fan of solid, hard Science Fiction. It’s not easy reading for the non-scientist and I suspect it will be even more satisfying for the many readers smarter than me but I enjoyed it hugely. However, Benford is always focused on the people caught up in his rich worlds, so don’t get the impression this is cold-hearted technological text. There’s love, lust, greed, ambition and all the other human failings too. This rich fare should be taken in small bites and will give many months of pleasure.

Eamonn Murphy

October 2016

(pub: Subterranean Press, 2015. 613 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-686-1)

check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com

Tags:

Category: Books, Scifi

avatar

About the Author ()

Eamonn Murphy is a science fiction, fantasy, horror and graphic novel reviewer who lives in the south west of England. He's written a few stories too.

Leave a Reply

SFcrowsnest
Assign a menu in the Left Menu options.
Assign a menu in the Right Menu options.

Enjoy scifi? Please spread the word :)