Book Review: Timescape by Gregory Benford (Millennium 2000)

As well as being an award winning writer of SF, Gregory Benford is a Professor of Physics at the University of California.  It is no surprise then, that his own experience and research feed into his work and this book is described as ‘Hard Science Fiction’.

Hard Science Fiction is a rather unappealing name for a sub-genre.  It is somewhat off-putting and suggests that the book will be something that has to be wrestled with to be understood.  The impact of asking someone if they would like to read some Hard SF might be akin to asking them if they’d like to have a go at some hard algebra.  Perhaps people who would like to try hard algebra are also those that like hard SF.  

‘Hard’ can sometimes be shorthand for ‘realistic’, or ‘speculative but based on sound scientific principles’.  

There are two main theatres of action in the book, both are on Earth but are set 30 years apart.  Scientists from the 1990s, where Earth is experiencing a deadly environmental crisis, attempt to send a message to scientists in thee 1960s by means of Tachyons, allied to good old-fashioned Morse code.   The environmental crisis has manifested in the form of enormous ‘blooms’ in the oceans that cause devastation to all other life in the vicinity. 

In the 1990s, a rather uptight British scientist named John Renfrew is struggling to get the World Council to understand his methods and to provide funding.  Renfrew is resentful of privilege and class snobbery and feels his ordinary upbringing is something of a weakness.

In the 1960s, Gordon Bernstein is an assistant professor at the University of California.  We first meet him driving his ’58 Chevy with the Beach Boys playing on the radio.  Could you get a more stereotypical introduction to California, maybe if he was giving a lift to John Kennedy or a soldier on his way to Vietnam.  Bernstein is being tormented by a mysterious source of interference on an experiement his is running involving indium antimonide and nuclear resonance.  Having only a limited education in Physics I did start to ponder whether the Hard SF genre could actually be, well, hard to understand.  I had to simply let the scientific descriptions wash over me and take them as read, it did not affect the understanding or enjoyment of the story.    Does it actually matter if you do not understand the science?  In many SF stories there are underlying scientific MacGuffins, which you are expected to simply accept.  Most will have no basis in science at all.  Therefore, if you can understand the actual science in this book, good for you, if not just carry on reading.

Time travel in a particular form is the aim of the experiment and, as you would expect, there is much discussion of paradoxes.  Handily, the scientists in the book attempt to explain the science to their relatives and friends who, like me, do not have the benefit of a Degree in Physics.

Throughout the book there are themes and side stories of love, infidelity and jealousy.  This injects some human element to the story but it didn’t move the it forward much.  Whilst the attempt was to make the scientists seem more like average guys,  descirptions of their almost blind dedication to solving a problem at the expense of career and relationships somewhat undermines the effect. 

Despite living in the 1990s, the British characters do seem stereotypically 1960s middle-class.  As with many Disney stories, the villain of the piece, to the extent that there is an  antagonist, is British.  Ian Peterson is an upper-class member of the World Council and invetarate womaniser.  He is intelligent and working for the greater good but is an utter cad.  The women in the story see through him quicker than the men but that doesn’t stop them from sleeping with him.  

The text is peppered with scientific theories and I ticked off microuniverses, Seyfert galaxies, Fermat’s last theorem,  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum mechanical supersymmetry.  One day perhaps I will understand them.  Benford tries to get across the aesthetic beauty of science and the satisfaction of solving a problem.  

Progress of transferring information from the 1990s to the 1960s is slow, caused by not having the advantage of the next 30 years of scientific knowledge and a general unwillingness to believe in messages from seeming extra-terrestrial sources.  There is some breakthrough success, which manifests itself in fairly minor ways initially but the tensions and absolute necessity of success is ramped up when the ‘blooms’ of the 1990s start to spread exponentially and find new ways of spreading into the atomospher and other living organisms.  

After laboriously detailing the scientific process over many chapters, the ending comes quickly and seems a bit rushed and hackneyed, full of gushing prose and philosophical meandering.

I started off enjoying this book but the longer it went on the more tedious the descriptions of the science involved became.  There’s nothing wrong with eliciting wonder and curiosity in the reader but this felt like a bludgeon wielded by an author whose knowledge of science will rarely be surpassed by his readers.