Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Gregory Benford

Where did your story “Leaving Night” come from?

In a dream. The whole opening came in remarkable detail, so I wrote the opening third or so next morning (obey your unconscious!). The second third came while writing . . . then I stalled. I took months to see how to resolve the plot. I wonder what people will take of the big swerve at the end. Seldom have I had so much trouble with a story!

You present a picture of the world that feels like it’s finely balanced on a point: remove a major element (lots of people from the global population), and it tips, drastically. Is this story an assessment of the world around us now?

Take away those who hold a major belief system and yes, society alters. Those left behind have their beliefs shaken. Those transported greet a new world, and though somewhat reassured, have a hard time and many questions. It’s a huge reset. Plus I wanted a way to frame an old debate that will never go away.

There’s an interesting paradox here that many of the world’s problems are alleviated with the removal of all of the “good people,” whereas you could reasonably argue that many problems that we face stem from technological advancements. Where’s the line here?

Religious people taken away have no tech to start and face great challenges. Unbelievers left behind enjoy the high tech/lower population Earth. That set up the dilemma for the reader, one reason I liked the idea. Which group would you want to be in? Of course this suggests our big problem is overpopulation, much of it unskilled for this tech level we enjoy. We have such huge numbers because tech makes that possible. Our problems stem from us, not technologies; we choose what to do with them.

There’s also the argument made here that religions are a sort of brake on innovation and science. Can we reach the stars with a moral or religious compass intact?

Historically, some religions do brake innovation and science: Galileo, etc. Islam? Two factors suggest that Islam is not inherently anti-science. The Prophet said, “God has not created anything better than Knowledge or anything more perfect or more beautiful than Knowledge,” and it is well known that for its first three hundred years Dar al Islam (the Muslim cultural/political sphere) was probably the most scientifically advanced area on the planet. The Muslim scholar Ibn-e-Myskuea foreshadowed the idea of evolution in the ninth century. But! Fundamentalist elements crushed the Arabic university system and its science within a few centuries. For cultural reasons, science as we know it never appeared in medieval China (though high technology did), it stumbled and perished in medieval Islam, and yet took root and flourished in the medieval West. Crucial was the belief that everything necessary to life was already known, either in the Confucian books or in the sunnah (the Qur’an and the hadith). Christendom took its bible as a springboard for speculating about the world rather than as a set of cut-and-dried instructional details. (Islam never encountered Greek philosophy except as something conquered infidels had once done. Right up to the end, the study of philosophy was called “Greek studies” or “foreign studies,” and it was never, ever taught publicly in a school.) So a millennium of this has led to an Islamic world far behind others.

We’re in the third scientific revolution. The Greek and Arabic ones died. The Asians have adopted Western ideas and science well, starting with the Japanese in the 19th century.

But surely no one can see the West as amoral. So we can move into the big themes of the next century—controlling climate, uplifting humanity economically, expanding our resource base into the solar system—while still having a religious compass—if we want it. We can’t do those things without more technology, not less.

In many ways, this reminds me of an uplift story. What about this theme is so appealing to readers?

The central theme of SF—the expansion of human horizons, in all meanings of those words. Opposition to this springs from many quarters. Creationists think their beliefs should trump evolution. Supposed rationalists think genetically modified food, which has saved millions from starvation, are “unnatural.” We all have our constraints on the horizons.

What do you have coming up next that we should keep our eyes out for?

Shipstar, the completion of the two-novel series that began with Bowl of Heaven, written with Larry Niven. It appears April 2014. The anthology I co-edited with my brother James is just out: Starship Century. It has Freeman Dyson, Stephen Hawking, Neal Stephenson, Nancy Kress, etc.—a fiction and nonfiction plentitude.

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Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak is the Weekend Editor for The Verge. He is the co-editor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, (Apex Publications, 2014). His writing has also appeared in io9, Gizmodo, Kirkus Reviews, Tor.com, BN Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Clarkesworld and others. He lives in Vermont.