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Cosm by Gregory Benford (Orbit, 10, 372 pages, hardback. ISBN 185723 627 0. Published 2 April 1998.)

cover scan In Cosm, Gregory Benford returns to the near contemporary settings that first established him. Readers of Timescape will appreciate the care with which Benford applies recent theoretical physics papers by Alan Guth and collaborators, suggesting ways in which universes ­­ yes, universes ­­ may be created in the laboratory.

Cosm is a provocative and accomplished novel of speculative Cosmology, an indifferent book about people, and, as a window on the real business of science, his most revealing work to date ­­ though not quite in the way he probably intended.

Alicia Butterworth is the physicist whose experimental use of uranium in RHIC (the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a genuine piece of research plant currently under construction) triggers the birth of a shiny new baseball-sized universe. Her theorist collaborator Max Jalon twigs to its true nature on page 155. That's about 100 pages too late for the reader, who is unfairly armed with the word 'Cosm'. Does Benford really think we'll not guess?

It's such a silly slip from a writer who throughout counterpoints human and Cosmological action superbly. Benford understands how to build tension. Time in the universe of the Cosm runs exponentially: the older it gets, the more Alicia's peers want it for themselves before it dies; the faster it ages, the more vital it becomes that Alicia's observations are not curtailed or interrupted. Cosm is that critically much-undervalued item, the unputdownable book.

Cosm works by the suspense it generates, not through the sensitivity or depth of its characterisation, and not through any development of a sense of mystery about people or their motives. None of this is Benford's area of competence­­

'"…in your emotional life empathy is important, what I call the Ah! response. In humour you're going for the Ha-ha! In science we seek the Aha! moment."' (Cosm, p119)

­­because Benford is a writer of meticulously researched suspenseful science. He is not (see above) an anthropologist, a social commentator, or Douglas Coupland. Doubly puzzling, then, that he should want to tackle ­­ only to straight away fudge ­­ the creation of a black female protagonist.

Benford seems not to know where to start with her. I say this with some confidence, because he never does start, preferring rather to make a virtue of the fact that Alicia holds much the views one would expect of, well, Gregory Benford.

What trajectory she has comes from her nicely caught relationship with her father, a columnist and espouser of 'new libertarian Left' thinking. From him Alicia has inherited a mistrust of Afrocentrism, a profound and much-rehearsed disbelief in the significance of racism in shaping her career, and a deleterious approach to the various tokenistic women's and minorities' committees and functions that bedevil her academic life. (Nine lines before the end of the book, we learn that she has rejected a University of California 'Black Woman' Award.) In short, she exhibits the sort of rugged intellectual independence and self-reliance that comes so easily to ­­ well ­­ white males, actually.

Oleanna's siren-call notwithstanding, Benford's is a bad call, not a sinister one; sociological realism fits no better into a novel of suspense than a kiddie seat fits a Mazda MX5. More personally revealing is Benford's take on science as a living, a discipline, and a vocation.

Science is an institution with ideals, and its history is written and rehearsed in countless 'history of science' courses to reinforce those ideals. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions showed why Science requires that reinforcement. Science is of its nature largely rote, largely ultra-conservative, largely hostile to innovation, largely dull. Without the corporate Dream, the individual reality would be unbearable.

But why should Science be this way? Because if it were not, it would not be nearly so reliable, and reliability ­­ magnified into Truth ­­ is science's grail; its point.

Benford writes about science as a search for truth, much as a beat copper might write about policing as a desire to serve and to protect. Cynics may balk, but what, after all, would be the earthly point of a realisable ideal ­­ and would we prefer policemen who at no time wanted to serve or protect?

Similarly with Benford: Cosm has bugger-all to do with real science ­­ which for the most part is more alchemical (Dolly) or artisanal (foamy ice-cream) than truly scientific ­­ and everything to do with why science is a worthwhile ideal.

'In research there came enchanted moments when one seemed to be peering into the heart of reality.' (Cosm, p150)

It is also a wish-fulfilment, of sorts, for the heroic age of science, when experiments were direct and material.

'In all the tangle of equipment, in their indirect ways of study, there had never come a moment like this, when they saw directly and cleanly into the living abyss of another entire Creation and felt it in their bones.' (Cosm, p274)

There is that impulse (essentially, a religious one) to anthropomorphise Science­­

'"… Well, the Cosm isn't just a footprint it's the real thing, a direct quantum gravity artifact sitting still in the lab, big enough to put your hands on. We're taking fundamental physics back to a human scale!"' (Cosm p253)

­­and at the same time transcend the human in its pursuit:

'To peer through the quick stubble of mathematics and see the wonders lurking behind was to momentarily live in the infinite, beyond the press of the ordinary world where everyone else dwelled in ignorance.' (Cosm, p333 )

Naturally, Benford says that 'Scientists hardly ever discuss religion', because that is part of the necessary myth. It doesn't stop him, in his afterword, quoting a paper that itself quotes Isaiah 45:18. Nor does it alter the intimate and demonstrable relationship ­­ often mediated by technology ­­ between religion and Western science. This is an old point of identity-anxiety among scientists. And just as Benford is well placed to write a paean to scientific method ­­ and does so here, superbly ­­ for that very reason, he also inevitably magnifies some of his institution's more recent anxieties.

From that last great beleaguered bastion of pure science, particle physics, Benford casts a caustic and unhappy eye over disciplines fallen and corrupted (biology comes in for some real stick; Richard Dawkins is 'sarcastic and insightful rather than original') and, beyond them, a public 'with the attention span of a commercial'. Thanks, Greg.

That old shibboleth, the Public Ignorance of Science, must surely be getting worn to a point, given the number of scientists beating their foreheads bloody against it. Why can't scientists let non-scientists simply get on with the perfectly sensible and enjoyable business of using science? Why shouldn't non-scientists glamorise scientists in their movies? Why should non-scientists have to commit physical constants to memory?

Yes, there is a very important and powerful popular novel waiting to be written about how science handles media spin ­­ this isn't it. A spiteful media, a moronic public and assorted psychopathic loons are all the same to Alicia ­­ points on a spectrum.

Alicia exhibits many of the symptoms of those who work in institutional science. She is no more or less arrogant, she feels no more or less marginalised, than do thousands of workers in institutions like hers throughout the world. The trouble is Benford's failure even to identify these symptoms as symptoms, let alone diagnose them.

He doesn't have to, of course. Cosm is, after all, a thriller. But its failings ­­ and they are endemic in the genre ­­ stem from his attempting to write every other kind of book at the same time.


Review by Simon Ings.

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© Simon Ings 2 May 1998