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Rubber Science, Real Science and Science Fiction

January 29, 1989|GREG BENFORD | Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine whose latest novel is "Tides of Light" (Bantam). and

Few read science fiction to learn science, any more than others read historical fiction to study history. In fact, as John Cramer explains in an afterword to Twistor, trying to do so risks "a trap lurking at the core of all hard science fiction."

That elusive hardness customarily implies fidelity to the exact sciences. "Twistor" fills this bill admirably with a swift tale, deftly done. It traces the discovery of a method of reaching the universe of "shadow matter," a separate phylum of particles that exists alongside ours but interacts with conventional matter only through gravity. Cramer's opening chapters move a trifle sluggishly, following the lives of research physicists, with shadow matter only a shadowy idea. But as they devise a way to transfer objects and then people into the shadow-universe, the plot quickens.

Even better, Cramer kindles real scientific excitement through scrupulous attention to technical detail. Ideas unfold naturally in tandem with narrative tensions and at midpoint the novel becomes a page-turner techno-thriller.

It is a satisfying read, but beware. Cramer, a professor of physics, warns: "The trap is that by science fiction convention there are no indications or clues as to which science in the story is 'straight stuff' and which is 'rubber science': speculation, extrapolation, fabrication or invention. . . ."

Shadow matter is a rather bizarre notion from current particle physics. "Twistor" extends this idea to envision real, separate Earths that followed odd evolutionary paths, but its sense of strangeness comes from the intricate games opened by the twistor trick. The rich, flowery rubber science grafts seamlessly to factual roots--the real stuff's prosaic processes--yielding a dramatic but well-grounded story. Cramer carefully sketches his boundaries and hints at a sequel.

His scientists are no humorless stock figures in lab coats. When industrial espionage types muscle in, the graduate student protagonists can't slug it out, but they do know computers: "Pretending to have program problems, he'd asked the system manager to help him and was able to pull off the old Trojan horse scam, which he knew from experience was still workable on IBM operating systems."

The novel knows how 1980s science differs from stereotypes. Experimenters think quite differently from theorists. Physics department rivalries put political spin on research decisions. Even the computer hacking is authoritative, derived from known tricks that have penetrated protected systems, though Cramer adds in his instructive afterword, "like the wrestling holds shown on TV, the reader is cautioned not to try these in his own home."

"Twistor" stresses fidelity to science as it is experienced at first hand, a primary asset of "hard" science fiction. This approach can have drawbacks, yielding stories that turn on as trivial a point as whether a match will stay lit in zero gravity. Not so here; the novel's implications leave us wanting more.

William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive uses science for utterly different ends, not caring overly if the details are wrong. Like J. G. Ballard, Gibson is a poet of surfaces. His chromed and tacky future stresses computer integration until the urban landscape becomes intrinsically surrealistic, "a rich humus, a decay that sprouted prodigies in steel and polymer."

There are many implausible elements, including the assumption that the personal computer, amped to the max, will be the dominant techno-myth of the next century. The development of man-machine interface is history, mere "images shifting on a screen: pilots in enormous helmets and clumsy-looking gloves, the neuroelectronically primitive 'virtual world' technology linking them more effectively with their planes, pairs of miniature video terminals pumping them a computer-generated flood of combat data, the vibrotactile feedback gloves providing a touch-world of studs and triggers. . . . As the technology evolved, the helmets shrank, the video terminals atrophied. . . ."

The clash of lofty relentless tech and ground-level life seethes through the novel, illuminating low-lifes and hackers alike, including Mona, a semi-savvy hooker who witnesses her john get fitted for a suit: " . . . in his underwear, crosshatched with lines of blue light, (watching) himself on three big screens. On the screens, you couldn't see the blue lines because he was wearing a different suit in each image. And Mona had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing, because the system had a cosmetic program that made him look different on the screens, stretched his face a little and made his chin stronger, and he didn't seem to notice."

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