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Mar 5, 2010

A Clarke number of 2?

According to "Which science fiction writer are you?"
I am:
Gregory Benford
A master literary stylist who is also a working scientist.
That "quiz" also says, "The real Greg Benford once took this quiz, and it told him he was Arthur C. Clarke."

I've only read one of Benford's books, Timescape. I had a personal problem while reading Timescape because, as a biologist, I found the "crisis" that drove the story (biodisaster in 1998) to be less than satisfying. This is the same kind of problem I had with Asimov's novel Nemesis, for which I've written a review in which I expressed unhappiness with Asimov's attempt to motivate the reader by shouting "in 5,000 years the sky is falling". Asimov's book (Nemesis) was "saved" by introducing us to an interesting extraterrestrial life form with telepathic abilities. However, the ending of Timescape had no redeeming features. I was particularly unable to swallow the idea of a school kid going to pick up reading material and preventing President Kennedy from being shot.

After having read Timescape I was reluctant to purchase Benford's Foundation Saga novel, Foundation's Fear. However, I was (and still am) intrigued by the way that Asimov left us with a hint (in Foundation and Earth) about a coming clash between humanity and extraterrestrials. I was intrigued by the back cover of Foundation's Fear where it says that Yugo Amaryl is an alien.

I worked very hard to read Foundation's Fear, but I could not get past page 289 (my copy is 597 pages long). I'd like to ask this of anyone who was able to read the entire novel: does Benford actually depict Yugo as an alien? Ever since I started writing The Start of Eternity I've felt I should make another attempt to finish reading Foundation's Fear. I'd like to know the details of the kind of interaction that Benford imagined between Daneel and extraterrestrial life forms.

When I got stuck at the start of Part 4 of Foundation's Fear I scanned ahead and found Part 5. I was put-off by the idea that people could have their minds transferred into chimps. This was the "step too far" for me. I had been able to grit my teeth and accept all of the other alterations made by Benford to Asimov's Foundation story, but this was too much. The mere existence of this sort of mind-transfer technology is not consistent with Asimov's Foundation Saga. I can accept switching from "hyperjumps" to "worm holes" for faster-than-light travel and I can accept that computers and industrial robots were working quietly in the background of Asimov's Foundation stories, but it seems to me that you cannot toss into the mix just any old technology that strikes your fancy. If you have the technical ability to transfer a human mind into a chimp brain then you do not end up with Toran Darell II later using primitive methods like brain wave analysis to study human minds. I walked away from Foundation's Fear at that point. The book cover said that Foundation's Fear was a continuation of Asimov's Foundation Saga. No, that is a lie. In his afterword, Benford wrote that he tried to add to the sweep of the Foundation Saga, but I think he swept it out the door and went in new directions that clash with Asimov's story.

I remain astounded by the fact that my copy of Foundation's Fear has no table of contents. The book is divided into "parts", and if there was a table of contents I probably would have quickly made my way to "Part 6 Ancient Fogs" and found Benford's aliens (I bought the book in order to see his idea for how to introduce aliens into the Foundation Saga) before growing tired of all the slogging in the early part of the book. I agree with this review: "Some of the Joan-Voltaire sections are muddled and confusing, and the whole chimpanzee adventures feels tacked on."

I'm amused by the idea that Benford took the "Which science fiction writer are you?" quiz and was told that he is like Arthur C. Clarke. I'm a fan of the way Clarke often depicted extraterrestrials as being vastly advanced beyond us and having only a very small interest in primitive creatures like humans...that is my kind of solution to the Fermi Paradox. Today I skimmed through the final parts of Foundation's Fear and I like the idea that when humanity spread into the galaxy it ran into artificial life forms that had out-lived their biological parent species. I take a different approach to the conflict between humanity and space aliens in The Start of Eternity, but I really like the idea that robots with positronic brains (such as Daneel) become aware of alien intelligences before humans do. I do not think it fits into Asimov's Saga to say that Seldon became aware of the aliens, so in The Start of Eternity I stay true to the idea (from Asimov's Foundation and Earth) that Trevize is the first human in the Foundation Era to start thinking seriously about contact with aliens.

Related Reading 
Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End

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