Passages by Benford

I’ve been belatedly catching up on 2014 short fiction in the past two or three weeks, moreso than I’ve done in the past two or three years; not enough to in time contribute substantially to the Locus Recommended Reading List, but enough to read a bunch of stories I like well enough to nominate for this year’s Theodore Sturgeon Award. (I and who knows how many others are invited each year to submit ranked nominations, which are then processed in some way and judged by the award’s official panel of judges.)

I may post a round-up of those stories I nominated, but for now I’ll note one in particular, a story by Gregory Benford, “Lady with Fox”, published late in 2014 in the anthology Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi (published by Tor).

The story concerns a researcher in neural networks, in a place called Biopolis, where the reigning new technology is “Konning”, as in konn-ecting; a kind of neural *connection* that happens between two people, enabling them to perceive each others’ thoughts and dreams, but only while both of them are asleep.

The researcher meets a new lady in town, an elegant woman with an enhanced pet dog, or fox, who turns out to be an expert in konning. He’s attracted to her, and his intellectual interest in konning is inextricable from his romantic interest in her, as is his rivalry and jealousy with a fellow researcher.

Benford is famously the most literary and poetic of all the hard SF writers, if perhaps consciously so, going all the way back to early novels like AGAINST INFINITY (1983), modeled after a Faulkner novella, and THE STARS IN SHROUD, (1978) a stylistic rewrite of an earlier novel, DEEPER THAN THE DARKNESS (1970). Through the years he’s produced many of the finest SF novels of all time, including TIMESCAPE (1980) and the later Galactic Center sequence of five novels beginning with IN THE OCEAN OF NIGHT (1977).

Like many steady authors his output has varied over the years, and decades, and the work he’s done lately is not much noticed, in terms of awards attention. (I said something similar about the work of James Tiptree, Jr., after her death, but cannot at the moment find that post. Newer authors get more attention, as perhaps they should.) (At the same time, my increasingly sporadic reading attention and review activity, even about authors I’ve admired for decades and would like to keep promoting attention to, is not helping this problem, I suppose.)

This story, “Lady with Fox”, is as idea-rich, thought-provoking, and precisely written as ever. This is why I read science fiction. Here’s a passage that evokes Marvin Minsky’s THE SOCIETY OF MIND (1986), his theory that the mind is composed of many semi-independent functions running simultaneously, at different levels of conscious and unconscious thought:

I used to agree with the great Minsky that it was degrading or insulting to say that somebody is a good person or has a soul. I felt that each person has built this incredibly complex structure, spent a lifetime doing it. We try to map and understand that. If you attribute such majestic structure to a magical pearl in the middle of an oyster that makes you good, that is trivializing a person. That keeps you from thinking of what’s really happening.

And the final paragraphs of the story, in which the researcher recollects that elegant women with her fox:

We know we will die and evolution gives us countless ways that make it happen.

Desires can kill you, too… Desire can kill the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure they can bring you down as well, but there will be no special hurry. So in our pursuit of knowledge we scamper after those desires, much like her fox.

I read that story maybe three days ago; then, coincidentally, the new issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, which I perused yesterday for the site’s periodicals page, had a letter from Benford about an earlier review of a book by Peter Watts. I’ll copy the entire letter here, with my bold emphasis.

In his review of Peter Watts’s Beyond the Rift (NYRSF 314), Joe Sanders quotes a James Nicoll remark that “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.” A telling jibe, but Joe catches the right angle of reply: Watts has so many ideas, it’s no surprise that many do make humans seem an odd side note. But in this he’s echoing a theme of hard sf little noted: proper appreciation of the implications of science do indeed de-center us.

That’s one of hard sf’s major points and why it can be (and often is) ecological in the largest sense. There’s a frequent criticism of hard sf and generally expansionist, interplanetary, etc. sf: “triumphantalist.” The charge is seldom unpacked. It seems to mean we will go forth and conquer all; i.e., a kind of conceptual imperialism. Watts shows this criticism to be wrong: science does not belittle us or make our efforts seem futile though it does cast us in the larger perspective. Bringing life and intelligence to the dead matter of the solar system, for example, is not polluting: it’s liberating. Watts shows this in enormously entertaining ways.

This of course appeals to one of my themes on this blog: how science fiction serves as a set of philosophical thought-experiments about how life, or existence, might be different, an exercise that inevitably, as science itself does, chip away at humankind’s tendency to think of itself as the center and reason of all being.

P.S. My other Sturgeon nominations were stories by Ian McDonald, Cory Doctorow, Nancy Kress, Ken Liu, Timons Esaias, Robert Reed… and one more. Not all of them authors who have the lengthy track record of Gregory Benford.

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