Timescape: Intimate but slow-moving story about scientists

Timescape by Gregory Benford science fiction book reviewsTimescape by Gregory Benford

Timescape (1980) has been on my TBR list for 35+ years, I’ve long wanted to read physicist Gregory Benford, the book won the Nebula Award, and it deals with time paradoxes, which I find fascinating but invariably unconvincing. First off, most of the book’s considerable length is devoted to a slow-moving and detailed portrait of scientists (mostly physicists, but also some biologists and astronomers) at work in the lab as well as their personal relationships with colleagues and wives/girlfriends. So to describe this as a “techno-thriller” would be inaccurate. At the same time, Benford spends a lot more time on character development than most “hard science fiction.” In the end I had mixed feeling about this book. It was interesting at times but too slow-moving to generate much excitement.

The book is set in two time periods — the first is 1962 in La Jolla, CA at UC San Diego, where physicist ordon Bernstein and his graduate assistant Albert Cooper discover mysterious interference in their experiments on spontaneous resonance relating to indium. Over time, they realize that the noise can actually be decoded using Morse code into scattered fragments of messages relating to chemical formulas and star coordinates, etc. Furthermore, they begin to suspect that these messages are coming from the future, delivered by tachyons due to their ability to travel faster than light and move backwards in time.

The second narrative takes place in 1998 at Cambridge University, where the world is suffering from various forms of ecological collapse, particularly an algae bloom that is destroying the biodiversity of the world’s oceans. Two scientists, Englishman John Renfrew and American Gregory Markham, lead a team that is urgently trying to use tachyons to send warnings back to the physicists of 1962 to head off the environmental collapse that will occur in the intervening decades.

Given the premise, you might reasonably expect the story to be a nail-biting thriller in which the scientists of the future are racing against time to send back messages sufficient to convince the scientists of 1962 that they are really from the future, not a hoax or communications from aliens, and provide enough data that these scientists of the past can mobilize the world to stave off future disaster. But instead Timescape takes its time showing us all the minutiae of the scientists‘ lives, particularly those in 1962 — their daily experimental routines, rivalries with colleagues, dissertation committees, worries about promotion to tenure track positions, exercise regimes, etc. Gordon even has to fend off his Jewish mother back in NY who doesn’t want her precious son to marry a sexually-liberated goyim girl from CA. One thing to note is that scientists’ world of 1962 is dominated by men, with the women almost exclusively playing second fiddle as wives or girlfriends. So if you are bothered by that, even though it may be an accurate portrait of the times, keep that in mind. It got on my nerves a bit.

It’s fairly obvious early on that Benford, an Emeritus Professor of Physics at UC Irvine specializing in plasma physics and astrophysics including wormholes and galactic jets, is injecting much of his own experiences as a physics graduate student at UCSD into the characters of Timescape. There’s certainly nothing wrong with drawing on your own life experiences to write a novel, since you know this world intimately. But you do have to be careful just how much to commit to paper and how to balance this with the proper pacing and not harming the plot. Personally, I thought there was way too much time spent on this part of the story, and cutting this down by 100-150 pages would have improved the pacing dramatically.

The other problem I had was the central scientific concept of using tachyons to communicate with the past. Since it involves calculating where the Earth would have been positioned in 1962 and shooting a stream of tachyons in that direction (that was my faulty understanding, at least), the message is garbled and in fragments. But strangely, the messages are focused almost exclusively on describing the environmental and ecological problems of the future, including detailed chemical formulas, rather than providing details to convince the 1962 scientists that these messages are really from the future. So much of the middle portion of the book is spent on the 1962 scientists at UCSD arguing about whether the messages are coming from secret military communications, the Russians, extra-terrestrials, etc. Why not just spell it out from the beginning and save a huge amount of time???

Though I didn’t fully understand it, apparently the future scientists were attempting to avoid spelling out exactly their identity and intentions to avoid the time paradox of having the 1962 scientists correctly understand the messages, inform the world of the danger, and take actions to prevent ecological collapse, thus negating the future in which the messages were sent from. This is a classic time travel paradox, known as the grandfather paradox, which asks what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather — would you instantly disappear? Or is this impossible?

Instead, if they can provide just enough data to encourage the past scientists to take actions to avoid future disaster but not enough to erase the future timeline of the messages, they can avoid the paradox by creating a new alternative and better timeline. It’s enough to twist your brain into a Moebius strip, which is what time travel stories should do. But I just couldn’t really make sense of this particular idea. It comes from the many-worlds theory of quantum physics, with the idea that alternative universes are continually being created in infinite variations, and in Timescape the scientists were trying to direct this process. These ideas were explained with greater clarity in Greg Egan’s Quarantine.

I listened to the audiobook produced by Recorded Books, and they went the extra mile by using two narrators, Englishman Simon Prebble for the Cambridge scientists of 1998, and American Pete Bradbury for the UCSD scientists of 1962. It’s a nice way to distinguish between the two narrative streams, since you can immediately recognize them by the alternating accents, which is very helpful for audio readers. I thought they both did excellent work, and any failing are due to the turgid pace of the story.

Published in 1980. In a future wracked by environmental catastrophe and social instability, physicist John Renfrew devises a longshot plan to use tachyons – strange, time-traveling particles – to send a warning to the past. In 1962, Gordon Bernstein, a California researcher, gets Renfrew’s message as a strange pattern of interference in an experiment he’s conducting. As the two men struggle to overcome both the limitations of scientific knowledge and the politics of scientific research, a larger question looms: can a new future arise from the paradox of a forewarned past? Winner of both the Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Award for best science-fiction novel, Timescape is an enduring classic that examines the ways that science interacts with everyday life to create the many strange worlds in which we live.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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