Posted by : atcampbell | On : August 3, 1999

Cosm by Gregory Benford

The discussion of Gregory Benford’s latest hard SF thriller drew a crowd of ten people. Eight had read the book and were there to discuss it, and two showed up just to socialize and join us for dinner. The book is a near future story about a young physicist, Alicia Butterworth, who makes a breakthrough discovery. A large part of the novel is a straightforward but unglamorized portrait of the life of a working academic scientist.

Everyone found the writing style compelling and readable, particularly compared to the stylistic experimentation of Benford’s Galactic Center books. We felt that the portrayal of a scientist’s life and work is realistic. The details of Dr. Butterworth’s life ring true, particularly her obsession with work and her neglect of a social life. Benford pulls off a convincing female viewpoint character. Her personality quirks seem quite believable for a scientist and a woman.

Dr. Butterworth’s discovery, the pocket universe “cosm” of the title, fascinated several of us. It is an intriguing idea, and many of us kept turning the pages simply to find out more about the cosm. It proved to be a wonderful vehicle for incorporating existing theory about the life cycle of a universe into a novel.

This book only had minor problems. Several of the minor characters seem shallowly developed, particularly in comparison to the fleshed-out Dr. Butterworth. The speech patterns of the characters are too similar, so conversations often read like a person talking to himself. Also, none of us felt that the scientists in the book seemed as brilliant as they were supposed to be.

It was apparent that the audience for this book is different than the audience of Benford’s Galactic Center books. Years ago we discussed In the Ocean of Night, the first book of that sequence, and found it unremarkable. Most of the people who attended that earlier discussion are still in the group, and they all liked Cosm. One relative newcomer to the group, who’d liked the Galactic Center books, was disappointed by the small scope of Cosm‘s story.

We feel that this book ranks in the upper tier of novels about scientists. The details of scientists, universities, and laboratories all ring true. Cosm compares favorably to the works of such writers of “scientist fiction” as John Cramer and Paul Preuss. We thought it was Benford’s best book since Timescape.

— A. T. Campbell, III