Gregory Benford - Cosm

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
Original review by Elaine Frei:

There was a time when hard science fiction had the reputation of being all about the hardware. The genre was not, many people felt, the place to look if you wanted characters with more than one dimension, if you were interested in philosophical or religious or political speculation, or if you were looking for any kind of portrayal of intimate personal relationships. If Cosm is any indication, those days - if they ever really existed - are long gone. There is plenty of hardware in Cosm, to be sure. A good portion of the story is set in physics laboratories in California and on the East Coast. But there are living, breathing human beings in these labs. If they do enough science to give the reader a good picture of how science is really done, they also have good and bad days, fall in love, get frustrated, sometimes suffer from professional jealousy, and even have actual friendships outside of their work. These characters show, in short, that scientists are just like the rest of us. Well, maybe a little smarter, but that doesn't mean their lives run any more smoothly than ours do.

As the novel opens, Alicia Butterworth, a physics professor at U. C. Irvine (not coincidently, the same school where author Gregory Benford teaches physics), has gone east to carry out experiments on the collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Instead of throwing the nuclei of gold atoms at each other, her experiment uses heavier uranium nuclei. This means extra safety reviews because of the immediate popular association of the words uranium and bombs. In order to get the safety reviews finished before her time scheduled to use the collider runs out, Alicia fudges the paperwork she is required to submit to the safety board. Her first run goes wrong, demolishing the expensive piece of equipment Alicia and her grad students have built from scratch. In the mechanism's ruins, Alicia discovers a metallic-looking sphere about the size of the basketball. She decides to smuggle the sphere out of Brookhaven and take it back to Irvine with her, partly because she is intrigued by it and partly as payback for learning that she will not get to analyze the data from her experiment until the physicists at Brookhaven have already gone over it. Soon after she returns to Irvine, it becomes clear to Alicia that the sphere is not only not metallic, but it is not anything that has ever been seen before. It is, in fact, a window on a new universe. The rest of the novel tells story of Alicia's study of the sphere, the fight for ownership of the sphere, and of how Alicia, the scientific community, and the world at large cope with the ramifications of its existence.

Cosm is not a perfect novel, by any means. One character goes off on a two-week vacation and does not reappear until several weeks have passed in the story's timeline. This is bothersome because he has become an important supporting character by the time he takes his leave. Also, parts of the resolution of the story were not completely satisfying to me. Still, there is enough to Cosm to make it a very good book. I especially like that there is more to the story than just scientific procedure and action. Benford manages to illustrate very well how both the scientific community and the rest of the world reacts to Alicia's discovery and to a second, larger sphere created back in Brookhaven. In fact, this exploration of the further ramifications of science outside the community of researchers is one of the things that makes the novel so good. How would the government react to such a discovery? What effect would the fact of the existence of other universes - and that human beings could create them - have on religious institutions and individuals? These are just some of the issues that are raised as the story unfolds. Cosm can be enjoyed as just a good read; it also provides a lot to think about long after the reader has finished the last page.

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