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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : The Science of Fiction : UCI Astrophysicist Gregory Benford Puts Reality Into His Novels


IRVINE — Sporting a blue Hawaiian shirt, brown shorts and red thongs, Gregory Benford hardly looks the picture of academic decorum, let alone fits the stereotype of an internationally known astrophysicist.

But the bearded Benford, seated at a paper-strewn desk in his office in the physical science building at UC Irvine, can be excused his Moondoggie-Goes-to-the-Luau attire. It's still summer after all, downtime at the university. And even though classes are not in session, Benford continues to drive three or four days a week to campus from his home in Laguna Beach to do research.

Over the past 10 years, he's been studying the center of the galaxy, specifically the dozens of massive electrical discharges occurring within a few hundred light-years of the black hole.

"Basically, I think they're a form of immense lightning," says Benford, 53, who served on the Reagan Administration's Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy, which advocated the futuristic defense technology known as Star Wars. He also advises NASA on space travel and serves as a consultant for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

But the academic setting in which Benford toils provides little clue to the double life he leads. For the past quarter-century, Benford has parlayed his expertise of science fact into an award-winning career in science fiction.

Benford is a two-time winner of the Nebula Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Science Fiction Writers of America, for "If the Stars Are Gods," his 1976 novel about the exploration of the solar system, and "Timescape," his 1980 best seller about a team of scientists in the near future attempting to communicate back in time in order to back the world away from ecological disaster.

"Timescape," still in print in 10 languages, was deemed by the Manchester Guardian as "quite probably the best novel about scientists yet written."

His "accurate, telling accounts of scientists at work," as Kirkus Reviews once put it, are a hallmark of Benford's novels. Said a Washington Post reviewer: "In the rapidly shrinking world of 'hard' SF, Benford is just about the best novelist now at work."

"Hard" science fiction, says Benford, is "that which is scientifically scrupulous. It's the real stuff--fiction about science the way it really is, and the science in it is accurate. It's not willy-nilly garbage like the media SF of 'Stars Wars' and 'Star Trek' and all that trash."

Benford's latest book, "Furious Gulf," (Bantam Spectra; $22.95) is about an expedition exploring the black hole at the center of the galaxy. It's the fifth in his "Galactic Center" series, which began in 1976 with "In the Ocean of the Night."

One of Benford's longtime fans is best-selling suspense author Dean Koontz, who in his 1981 book on how to write best-selling fiction cited Benford's "Timescape" as an example "of how good science fiction can be when it really tries."

Benford and Koontz, a Newport Beach resident, have since become good friends, with Benford and his wife, Joan, getting together frequently with Koontz and his wife, Gerda.

"We share an interest in good food and good wine and good conversation, so that means our relationship is largely conducted over dinners," Koontz says. He and Benford also talk frequently on the phone, "usually complaining about the publishing business. Writers love to complain to other writers about the publishing business. And, of course, in every instance we consider ourselves saints and everyone else in the business Philistines."

One of the things he most likes about Benford, Koontz says, is "his unshakable sense of humor, which is generally based on human folly, and therefore there's plenty of material." Benford can also be self-deprecating, Koontz says with a chuckle. "If he's not, then I make fun of him. I always try to give him balance. It bothers me that he's a successful physicist and a successful writer, and therefore I try to humble him."

Home base for the Benfords is a custom-built, single-story house at the top of Laguna's Mystic Canyon.

The comfortable house on Skyline Drive, which boasts lots of wood and windows and a deck that commands a sweeping view to the ocean less than a mile away, barely survived the firestorm that swept through Laguna last fall and wiped out scores of nearby homes.

The Benfords, who have been married 27 years, moved into their home in 1972, shortly after Benford joined the faculty at UCI. A die-hard waterman, he heads down to the beach every other day in the summer to swim, surf or scuba dive.

The couple's 23-year-old daughter, Alyson, is an artist who works in a frame shop in Portland. Son Mark, 21, spent part of the past school year traveling around the world with the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea program and will attend Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon this fall.

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