[APAK logo] Issue #71, December 13th, 1996

Heavy Lifting: The Many-Volume Series
by Greg Benford

As a fan, I had always loved the sweeping sagas of space and time from sf's Golden Age: the Foundation, Heinlein's Future History, Anderson's savvy tales of galactic trading and intrigue. Slowly, I began thinking of writing my own, never guessing that I was embarking not on a project but a voyage.

I did not set out to write a series of interconnected novels over a span of 25 years. The project grew on me, and I made plenty of mistakes bringing it to fruition.

I could describe here my inner struggles alone, the endless interior workings one performs before the blank page -- but external events proved just as important. I suspect this happens more often than most of us would like.

In 1977 I published my fourth novel, In the Ocean of Night, concerning an irritable astronaut who discovers evidence of a galaxy-spanning network of intelligent machines. It was nominated for a Nebula and I went about my normal profession as a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine.

But my subconscious would not let me alone. I kept thinking of what such ideas implied, and by 1982 wrote Across the Sea of Suns, with the same character exploring nearby stars.

Here the physicist collided with the writer. I had been doing research in astrophysics since 1974, and noticed that our own galactic center was abrim with intriguing new observations.

In the core, within a few light years of the exact center, there are a million stars within a single light year. On average, the nearer stars are only a hundredth of a light year away, ten thousand times the distance from the Earth to the sun. Imagine having several stars so close they outshone the moon.

As one might expect, this is bad news for solar systems around such stars. Close collisions between all these stars occur in about a hundred thousand years, scrambling up planetary orbits, raining down comets upon them as well.

The galactic center is the conspicuous Times Square of the galaxy -- and far more deadly that the comfortable suburbs like ours. Joel Davis's Journey to the Center of Our Galaxy details how horrific it is, pointing out that the survival time for an unshielded human within even a hundred light years of the core is probably hours.

In the Ocean of Night explored the discovery that computer-based life seemed dominant throughout the galaxy. The British astronaut, Nigel Walmsley, had uncovered the implication that "evolved adding machines," as he put it, had inherited the ruins of earlier, naturally derived alien societies.

Working with Walmsley set tough problems. I had picked a British point of view character because he was an outsider in a space program usually run by Americans. I had a feeling for the Brits from a sabbatical there in 1976, though I'd been writing stories which I incorporated into the first novel as early as 1972. Still, one novel can trace the core events of a character over years, perhaps a life -- but I did not know how Walmsley would change over the considerable span of Book #2.

I finished that book in a mental muddle. My subconscious had begun to present me, uninvited, with events beyond the end of the book. In the first version of #2, a Simon & Schuster hardcover, I ended on a note of difficulty and defiance.

Then publishing intervened. Timescape Books collapsed and Pocket Books held hostage several books, seeking to extract their investment. Pocket's Irwyn Applebaum told my agent (none of them would speak to a mere author) they would not publish the paperback and wanted $80,000 -- yes, $10,000 more than they had paid me -- for the rights. I refused and the book went into stasis for several years. I eventually escaped by paying $10,000, as I remember.

All this while scenes, ideas and characters popped into my head as I worked on other books.

By this time I had learned to follow my subconscious. If I didn't, I stalled on other projects. Slowly I realized that a larger series of novels yawned before me.

Bad news, I knew immediately. As Gene Wolfe noted in the Spring 1996 SFWA Bulletin, series novels must each have a sense of an ending, while foreshadowing more. I hadn't done this in the first two books.

Or had I? Book #1 closed with an expansive embracing, and #2 hadn't reached most of its audience yet.

When Lou Aronica at Bantam offered to publish the whole series, I took the plunge. I added more to the ending of #2 and Lou Aronica remarked at the voice of the new material, which he said echoed the rest of the novel well. I blinked; I hadn't even thought of rereading Across the Sea of Suns. It had simply been sitting there, still fresh. Reassured, I set out writing #3.

And hit a snag straightaway. A series treats the arc of a figure's life, but the galaxy-spanning novel covers so much space and time, I couldn't get Walmsley around to see and live enough.

Worse, the galactic center was the obvious place for machines to seek. By the early 1980s we knew that there is a virulent gamma ray flux there, hot clouds, and enormously energetic processes. Most of this we gathered from the radio emissions, which penetrate dust clouds and revealed the crackling activity at the center for the first time. Infrared astronomy soon caught up, unmasking the hot, tangled regions.

By the time I finished Across the Sea of Suns in 1983, I realized that I could do some research myself on the galactic center. I had by that time written papers on pulsars and galactic jets, and had both expertise and curiosity.

Strikingly, mysterious features appeared in the radio maps. In 1984 I was giving a talk on galactic jets at UC Los Angeles, and my host was Mark Morris, a radio astronomer.

"Explain this," he challenged, slapping down a radio map he had just made at the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

My first reaction was, Is this a joke?

It showed a feature I called the Claw, but which Mark more learnedly termed the Arch: a bright, curved prominence made up of slender fibers. Though the Arch is over a hundred light years long, these filaments are about a light year wide, curving upward from the galactic plane, like arcs of great circles which center near the galactic core, which lies several hundred light years away. These intricate filaments shine by energetic (in fact, relativistic) electrons, radiating in strong magnetic fields, which are aligned along the filaments.

My first intuition, seeing the radio map of the Arch was, This looks artificial. Astronomy reflexively assumes that everything in the night sky is natural. The sf writer in me immediately explored the opposite. I decided to extend the Walmsley books by at least one more, set at galactic center.

I worked on a theory for those thin filaments which glow by electron luminosity, a hundred times longer than they were wide. I thought of neon lights, which are glow discharges sustained by electric currents in slender tubes. Could these fibers be a sort of slow-motion lightning, taking perhaps hundreds of thousands of years to discharge?

Those hunches became the kernel of several papers on the center, a model which has become generally accepted -- for now, pending more data. While I was mulling over maps and jotting equations, I kept on writing. Over years, the writing fed the physics, and vice versa.

Intriguing setting is essential in a series of novels, or else a sense of sameness creeps in. I used all the gaudy color and striking effects I could muster in #3 of what came to be called the Galactic Series (by my publisher, Bantam), Great Sky River -- a reference to the ancient Indian names for the Milky Way.

I focused on the inner few light years, for dramatic effects, even though I knew the sheer energy flux there made humans quite vulnerable. To protect them I made them huge and armored. The central figure was a man named Killeen, who flees across a ruined landscape dominated by the black hole, which his people call the Eater of All Things -- though they don't quite know why.

This ravaged panorama seemed an ample stage to act out my main theme, the superiority of machines in much of the galaxy. I also got to spring their size as a twist at the very end of the series, when they meet Walmsley, whom they take to be a dwarf.

By then, measures of the orbital velocities of stars very close to the true galactic center, called Sagittarius A, suggested that a point mass of about a million stellar masses lurks there, giving off very little light.

Much controversy surrounds these observations, though, with some holding that the data could mean only a thousand stellar masses is needed. I opted for a million, because then a ship could fly through the ergosphere, the very rim of the black hole, and not be crushed by the tidal forces. This would be crucial to the last volume, #5 -- I thought.

The huge energetics of the center would draw machines, I felt. The black hole would intrigue any inquisitive life form, their struggles surging across a virulent territory. Humans would be part of it all, but certainly not the major players.

How to put humans in this mix? I collided here with the classic hard sf dilemma: humans vs. the immense landscape. How to make them seem significant? How to simply make it plausible that they could survive? One could invoke miracles, of course, in the form of magic materials or offstage events which just happen to put people where you need them. I wasn't willing to do that. Picky, perhaps, especially in a time when fantasy novels unbounded by visible constraint began dominating the marketplace, and hard sf held little sway on the best-seller lists. But I couldn't make myself take a simpler path, and this proved a significant slower of my work. I pondered and time slid by.

Next: Hard Physics

[Editor's note: this article appeared in a different form in the Autumn, 1996 issue of the SFWA Bulletin.]

On Dec. 10, he noticed that his canary, Peter, sang in rhythm to the sound of gunfire.

[APAK logo] Issue #71, December 13th, 1996

Return to the table of contents.

Next article: Ellison Makes Deadline!, by Andy Hooper.