Robert Heinlein is the legendary author of such classic works as Starship Troopers, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Stranger in a Strange Land. His books have influenced generations of artists and scientists, including physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford.
“He was one of the people who propelled me forward to go into the sciences,” Benford says in Episode 348 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Because his depiction of the prospect of the future of science, engineering—everything—was so enticing. He was my favorite science fiction writer.”
Heinlein appears as a character in Benford’s new novel, a time travel thriller called Rewrite. The novel depicts Heinlein as a MacGyver-esque man of action who dispatches his enemies with the aid of improvised traps. Benford, who met Heinlein in the late 1960s and knew him throughout his life, says this is an extremely accurate portrayal.
“He had a degree in engineering from Annapolis, and he liked doing things himself,” Benford says. “You can certainly see it in his novels, which are full of people rigging stuff up and making it work. He loved that kind of thing.”
Heinlein’s DIY attitude even extended to his houses, which he designed himself and which also displayed his technical flair. “He over-pressured this circular house he built in Santa Cruz so that when you open the doors, dust doesn’t blow in, it blows out,” Benford says. “Plus the fact that over-pressuring your house gives you a little more oxygen to run on.”
The novel’s depiction of Heinlein as calmly proficient with firearms is also very true to life.
“I saw him fire guns outside his house, and he was a good shot,” Benford says. “He tended to be good at something if he took it up. He would learn everything from scratch and make it work.”
Listen to the complete interview with Gregory Benford in Episode 348 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Gregory Benford on Timescape:
“I realized in writing the novel that there was a quantum mechanical way to look at this, which is that the act of going backward in time is what creates another universe, and not just, as Hugh Everett said, just any old thing that happens—any time you throw a ball against a wall you get a different universe. … So you can go back and kill your grandfather, and then you live in a world in which you are there, your grandfather isn’t alive, and you go forward to something else. The universe you were in you leave behind. So in that universe you vanish at some future date and don’t ever appear again. You’ve gone to the other universe, backward in time. That was the solution I proposed in Timescape, and it turns out that a gentleman named David Deutsch at Oxford later formulated a whole version of quantum mechanics on that insight.”
Gregory Benford on Philip K. Dick:
“Paranoia dominated his view of the world. He really didn’t necessarily trust that everything was real, and said so repeatedly. So it was fun to talk to him about that. He used this to great fashion in his fiction, particularly about the general phoniness that you get in the world of representations and images. He would have loved the implications of the internet and virtual reality, which largely had not occurred when he died back in 1982, at the age of 53. He missed the future that was right there, about to happen. And as I said in an essay about him, no one would have been more surprised about the startling success of Philip K. Dick’s fiction in the world at large—and his prominence—no one would have been more surprised than Philip K. Dick.”
Gregory Benford on Breakthrough Initiatives:
“[My brother and I] did the first experiments in beamed sails. That is, how to power light aircraft with beams, which saves you from carrying a rocket engine along. We did the experiments first at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We were the first people to lift a light ‘sailcraft,’ we call it—carbon fiber—against gravity using just electromagnetic beams, microwave beams. … And now Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by the great Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, is spending $10 million a year on such research, and my brother is a consultant for them full-time—I didn’t have the time to devote to it, but he did. And they’re looking at methods of driving very light spacecraft with beams, the ultimate target being a flight to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.”
Gregory Benford on cryonics:
“Many of the writers you know were offered a free freeze, and turned it down. … Heinlein said to me, ‘How do I know it won’t interfere with my next stage?’ He really believed there was a next stage of some kind. Asimov said to me, ‘I don’t think I should impose any kind of cost on the future, even the cost of just topping off my nitrogen.’ And I said, ‘Well you’ve already paid for the cost of topping it off. That’s what the money’s for.’ And he said, ‘Still, I don’t think I have a right to have any hand in the future.’ Bradbury said to me, ‘Well gosh, what about my wife and children? I’d lose them.’ And I said, ‘Well first, Ray, when you came into this world you didn’t know anybody either. But more to the point, what’s to stop you from getting a contract for your wife and children?’ He plainly wanted to dismiss the subject. In fact I think the real reason most people turn it down, including [sci-fi] writers, is that they don’t want to think concretely about the problem of death.”