The Science in Science Fiction

By Barbara Melendez


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 10, 2010) – Fans of science fiction will relish the opportunity to see three of the most celebrated writers in the field – award-winning authors Gregory Benford,Ben Bovaand Harry Harrison– when they appear at the University of South Florida’sScience Fiction Symposium,Feb. 16 – 18, sponsored by the USF Humanities Institute.The symposium’s theme is scientists who write science fiction and each event promises to explore scientific fact in light of imagined scientific progress – and vice versa. As writers and as thinkers, all three have been influenced by, as well as having influenced science, which makes them perfectly suited to this celebration of the genre.    


“Because science fiction writers make assumptions about science and the future, it’s interesting to try to determine how much of what they say is accurate and how much is pure fantasy,” said Humanities Institute Director Silvio Gaggi. “We can expect that sci-fi writers who are themselves scientists would create imaginary pictures of the future that are more likely to be accurate in their representations of where science is and where it is likely to take us.” 


The two major events, which are free and open to the public, take place Feb. 17. At 1 p.m., the three writers will participate in a panel discussion in the Marshall Student Center, room 2708. At 7 p.m. in Traditions Hall in the Alumni Center, Benford will deliver the symposium’s keynote address. The authors will visit various classes where students will have the opportunity to meet and talk with them during the rest of the symposium.


USF Mass Communications Professor Rick Wilberwill moderate the panel discussion. A writer of science fiction himself, Wilber has penned numerous books, most recently Rum Point,which came out in 2009. He couldn’t ask for a more enjoyable moderating assignment because he is well-acquainted with each of the panelists – as a colleague and a fan. Between the four of them, their enthusiasm and sense of wonder are contagious.


“Gregory Benford is one of those astounding personalities who has utterly mastered disparate fields,” Wilber said. “He’s among a select group of science-fiction writers who are also top scientists in their fields. I’m a huge admirer, not only of his fiction – my personal favorite is Eater, published in 2000. That novel is heavy on the physics and somehow also heavy on the excitement and storytelling. It’s amazing, really, how he manages that.”


Benford, a physics professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Woodrow Wilson Fellow, conducts research in astrophysics and plasma physics and received the Lord Prize for his contribution to science and the public comprehension of it. He has served as an advisor to the Department of Energy, NASA and the White House Council on Space Policy. Benford has also earned numerous awards for his works of fiction, including the Nebula Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel Timescape.He won fame for his Galactic Center Saga novels and his collaboration with prominent shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and was host and scriptwriter for the television series “A Galactic Odyssey.” He also wrote Foundation's Fear,one of an authorized sequel trilogy to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Wilber has fond memories of Harrison’s work from childhood. 


“When I was in high school I first read Harry Harrison’s Bill, the Galactic Hero,which remains today one of science fiction’s best known and critically praised satires,” he said. “I found the book hilarious and sharply pointed in its satire and was instantly a fan of Harry’s work. …I’m at work right now on an essay collection for McFarland Books on Harry, called “Harry Harrison: Essays on a Galactic Hero,” and that’s allowed me to interview or solicit essays from many of the top writers and editors in the field. It’s been a wonderful experience to see how highly regarded Harry is as a person and as a writer.”


Harrison, has amassed more than 50 years of writing experience, and is best known as the author of the Stainless Steel Ratand Deathworld series as well as his novel Make Room! Make Room!, the basis for the 1973 classic film Soylent Green.Harrison received the 2009 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Harrison is an advocate of Esperanto, the international language meant to be a universal second language and has used it in some of his novels.


Wilber also works baseball into his writing and he’s found a way to connect with Bova in that regard.


“Ben Bova has a big impact on my own writing,” he said. “In fact, we collaborated on a really fun short story a few years ago that had a baseball theme and has since been printed not only in Asimov’s magazine but reprinted in several collections. Working with Ben on that short story and a couple of other projects over the years taught me a lot about his techniques to keep the action moving forward rapidly while still building effective characters and, in Ben’s case, amazingly real settings out among the planets and stars. Ben is one of those writers who does a fabulous job of research and then translates the intricacies of that research into a very accessible, very readable, very enjoyable story.”


Bova, a former executive in the aerospace industry, has been involved in space technology from the beginnings of the space age and is President Emeritus of the National Space Society. He is a past president of Science Fiction Writers of America and has more than 120 futuristic and non-fiction books under his belt, most notably his Grand Tourseries. He has taught science fiction courses at Harvard University and New York’s Hayden Planetarium and was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arthur C. Clark Foundation. Predictions of present day scientific discoveries have appeared in Bova’s various writings, such as solar powered satellites, virtual reality, human cloning, stem cell therapy and electronic book publishing. What remains is his postulation on the discovery of life on Mars and confirmation of his thoughts about water on the moon.


For more information about the Science Fiction Symposium, contact Melanie Formentin at or (813) 974-3657.


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.