Dr. Gregory Benford: Science Fiction Writer

The Wire: A column dedicated to science and technology

by Megan Cole

Over a career spanning half a century and producing thirty acclaimed novels, UCI Physics Professor Emeritus Dr. Gregory Benford has picked up a couple of things about writing science fiction. His first piece of advice for aspiring sci-fi writers: “Write about what you know — and if you don’t know anything, that’s what universities are for.” His second and favorite piece of advice: “drink lots of coffee — it makes you smart.”

Dr. Benford, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow who taught at UCI from 1971 to 2006, returned to campus last Tuesday to discuss his life as an astrophysicist and author, and to advise UCI students who hope to emulate his unconventional path. The lecture, hosted by UCI’s Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication, was the second installment in a three-part series on writing tips for students participating in National Novel Writing Month this November.
Dr. Benford, a charismatic and self-assured Alabama native, has never known a life devoid of either writing or physics. Ever since he was a child in Mobile, he knew that he wanted to write science fiction.

“I remember being a young boy, and going up to my father and telling him, ‘Dad, I want to grow up and be a science fiction writer,’” said Benford. “My dad replied, ‘Son, you want to grow up, and you want to write science fiction? You know you can’t do both.’”

Throughout his undergraduate years at the University of Oklahoma, Benford wrote short stories as a hobby, never expecting writing to be anything more than a part-time job. He didn’t publish his first short story until he was 24, then a graduate student at UC San Diego. For years, he worked simultaneously on selling sci-fi shorts to genre magazines and pursuing a doctorate in physics from UCSD. In 1971, when Benford was 30, he celebrated his first succession of major accomplishments in both of his chosen fields — he published his first novel, “Deeper Than the Darkness,” and was hired at UCI as a physics and astronomy professor.
Benford, acclaimed for his meticulously accurate “hard science” approach to science fiction, credits his academic background for the success of his novels.

“Writing, for me, comes naturally, because I’m writing about a subject which I know and love,” said Benford. “I know plenty of authors who hate the writing process and say it’s painful for them — that’s not me. I find that it comes very easily if you know what you’re trying to say. When I’m writing about physics, and office politics in academia — I know that well.”
Some of Benford’s most notable research, which features heavily in his novels, includes his work on gravitational lensing, plasma physics and wormholes. In 1995, Benford proposed that if wormholes formed in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, they could still exist today, and may be detectable. Benford noted that his background in wormholes and time travel adds necessary credibility to his books on the subject, and sets his novels apart from other “time travel” books in the science fiction genre. Benford has also specialized in the field of human cryopreservation, which has featured as a major plotline in several of his works.

In addition to his scientific accuracy, Benford’s novels are also noted for their complex and realistic characters. Benford noted that most of his characters are “thinly-veiled, satirized” versions of people in his life. Two of his best-selling novels, “Timescape” and “Cosm,” are based heavily on his time at UC Irvine. Many of his characters are fictionalized portraits of former colleagues and UCI faculty, but, Benford laughed, “I can get away with it, because I’ve found that if you change just a few minor details about them — even just their hair color and their name — people rarely recognize themselves when I write them into characters in my novels.”

Besides “writing what you know,” Benford advised fledgling authors to “write about what nobody else is writing about.” Benford cited the success of his own work as an example — he was one of the first members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America organization, and wrote in the 1970s and 80s about pioneering science that hardly any other novelists had access to, such as the mechanics of time travel and wormholes, which were academic specialties of his at UCI. Benford is also widely credited for writing the first-ever story about a computer virus. His novels sell in the millions and stay on shelves, he argued, because his stories are unique, even in the far-flung science fiction genre.

Even after fifty years, nearly as many novels, 223 short stories and more than 200 scientific publications, Dr. Benford still doesn’t plan to stop writing anytime soon.

“I’m approaching 80, and that’s when most people in the field say that you’re too old and you have to stop writing,” he said. “But I’m still doing 3,000 words a day, and I’ve got three novels out to publishers right now … I’ll stop writing when it stops being so much fun.”