What are we talking about when we talk about science fiction? A genre defined by its trappings, its tropes? Or a mode of exploration of a kind of telec reification that only came into being with the advent of what we now recognize as science? A form of Gothic? An inversion of the historical drama? A subset of fantasy?
Or all of the above?
When encountering a writer like Jack Vance, it may be understandable that definitions (or at least taxonomies) fail to clarify how this can be the same as work by Gregory Benford. Aside from certain obvious aesthetic differences, there is the problem of, for want of a better term, scientific verisimilitude.
At a certain point, in conversation with anyone who does not “get” science fiction, it comes down to an ineffable quality that, while sharing much with all other forms of fiction, sets the experience apart, both aesthetically and culturally, and the only answer to the question “What is it about this stuff that appeals to you so much?” is: it lights up the imagination like nothing else.
(“I like it.” Why? “Why do you like Regency Romance? Or Gothics? Or murder mysteries? Something about them appeals and opens you up to an emotional and aesthetic experience you find no where else.”)
Before I continue I want to state that this is about Gregory Benford, not Jack Vance, whose work I mention as an example of the range to be found within the expanding pond called Science Fiction. It is about his new novel, Shadows Of Eternity.
This novel gave me an experience I have not had in some time, or at least only in some dilute form, embedded within texts that privileged other aspects of the fictive practice, that I almost forgot about it, namely the pleasure of didactic prose in service to the larger qualities of a science fiction novel. Shadows Of Eternity is done in the form we know as Hard SF, which only means that considerable attention is paid in the text to the presumed scientific justifications for the actions. In that, it is exemplary.
I say “presumed scientific justifications” because for the most part their accuracy is secondary for most readers, and many examples over the decades have proven unreliable in that. This is a novel, not a textbook, and the primary concern is to convince the reader in the moment that what is happening conforms, or can conform, to legitimate scientific understanding. “Getting it right” is edifying, both for the reader and, in a different way, the writer. Acknowledging that accuracy to a certain number of decimal points is less important than the Idea of accuracy is like saying that a reader of a novel set in the reign of Henry II does not, in the end, care if every single historical detail is correct as long as it feels correct and cannot be contradicted by a cursory glance at a history of the period.
That said, getting it right is a point of pride and, possibly, an ethical requirement, depending on the kind of story being told.
This gets tricky when writing about the far future and exotic physics and technological developments that might come about. We are talking about speculation, after all, which is one of the principle pleasures of science fiction. In practice, the might-be of a given story must be consistent with the have beens and probably ares of the currently known.
What does this have to do with storytelling?
Well, if you go down that road—Hard SF—then, just as in any other genre, it is incumbent on the writer to include material that produces a satisfying sense of realism in which the characters move. Only in this case, that material is of a bit more rarefied nature, namely the science behind the world being examined.
One of the criticisms of SF in this has been that the story often seems to grind to a halt while some bit of arcane scientific exposition takes place. This kind of thing bores a certain kind of reader. So be it. But why should this demote the work on the scale of worthy literary practice? (One of the earliest franchise efforts in the James Bond cosmos post-Fleming spent, in my opinion, an inordinate amount of time on Bond’s sartorial choices, as well as minutiae of cars, food, and other fashion bits. I could not have cared less, but I acknowledge that there were and are readers for whom this was a distinct pleasure. Trivial, you say? Then in the case of historical novels in which paragraphs are deployed in describing family lineages, treaties, court etiquette, or the mechanics of travel. But all that bears on the story? Of course it does.) It seems not to occur to critics and certain readers that these expository bits are among the reasons for the readers to pick this author and not that. One should judge how well it is done, not whether it is there.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that, in science fiction, the World is as much a character as any motile actor.
(Which of course is why it is legitimate to explicitly link science fiction to Gothic.)
Literary tastes in recent decades have caused many writers to bury their didacticism more and more. The underpinnings intrude less and less, often resulting in a cinematic effect. (I note that some writers still deliver the fascinating expository bits, but rendered cleverly so that they can be ignored. I’m talking here now of work in which ignoring those passages is anathema to the author’s intent.) Partly, this can be gotten away with because of the last seventy years of science fiction film and television, which for large audience provides the visual shorthand for what is happening in a novel. Partly, also, this is possible because of the explicitly didactic work done in novels and short stories over and beyond the same period, so a basic “grammar” is now in place. And partly because a lot of work simply does not rely on that level of foundational support—the stories are not about the changes in the world but about the same old sturm und drang one could find in just about every other genre.
Benford’s new novel is, in some ways, an echo of SF from long ago. Reading it, I felt a cozy sense of nostalgia produced by the form and the tactics used. I found myself pleasantly remembering Clarke, Clement, Gunn, as well as Pohl, Chad Oliver, and even Simak. This is a mode of SF that seems of late to be disappearing, the dialectic. For decades, especially in the magazines, writers spoke to each other through stories, one responding to another and creating a chain reaction of alternative “takes” on ideas. This formed a dense fabric of historical conceptualizing. (Hence Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was “answered” by Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, which spark John Steakly’s Armor as well as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and so on. True, this happens in other genres, but it is not nearly so clear or connected.)
Shadows Of Eternity is part of this. Benford took a page (or more) from Poul Anderson by using Anderson’s flying aliens, the Ythri. (He borrowed a couple of other concepts from Anderson as well, one notion going all the way back to Anderson’s very early novel Brain Wave.) Yes, this is a form of homage, but it is more as well. Benford’s Ythri are his own. What Anderson created, Benford built on and made richer.
The core of the novel, though, is an examination of time. Deep time. (Benford wrote a nonfiction study of this subject.) The fact that the universe is old, so vastly old that when we begin peering into the abysses we will risk being swallowed up in the antiquity of it. Rachel arrives on the moon to join the staff of the Library, which is what has evolved from the early SETI attempts. The signals from old civilizations have been discovered and it is the task of the Library to curate and somehow translate them. Some of these signals turned out to be entire AI templates, and the Library now houses Minds.
Though technically qualified, Rachel understands that this will not set her apart. She must demonstrate qualities that she is unsure she possesses. But she blusters her way through, becomes a Trainee, and begins delving into these Minds.
As the novel proceeds, Rachel grows into someone she never expected to become. Confidence accrues, a taste for the edge emerges, and Rachel develops into—
She comes into her own with the arrival of visiting aliens—the Ythri—and becomes, often in spite of herself, the primary liaison with them. The Ythri have come through a wormhole and want to find their way back.
Benford sets before us puzzles and takes us through solutions and along the way does something the best science fiction has always sought to do—opens the vistas of what may be Out There for us and gives us a glimpse of the possibilities.
And those expository bits, filled with the how-to and what-is-it and where-did-this-come-from that science offers? Those set the stage for a conceptual apprehension that renders the view coherent enough for us to feel the awe of understanding what we’re looking at. This is what was meant by “Gosh, wow!” and Sense of Wonder.
The other thing to notice is not what is there, but what is not there—Bad Guys. There’s no war, no evil overlords, none of that. There are irritating people, foolish people, annoying situations, and a great deal of genuinely unnerving discoveries, but this is a world that presents as recognizable. The conflicts are, in some ways, quite ordinary, but set as they are in this interesting future, the ordinariness only becomes part of the puzzles that challenge Rachel.
Finally, Benford writes well. His descriptions can fascinate. The universe he sees, in reality and in his imagination, is vibrant and wonderfilled. This is science fiction for the explorer lurking inside us.