The year is 1998 and humanity has abused the environment to the point of collapse. Rationing of materials and rotating blackouts have become a way of life as humankind struggles to cope with the mounting ecological disasters around them. Even the scientists are forced to compete for scarce resources and only research that promises relief from these collective disasters is funded. Enter into this world Gregory Markham a scientist experimenting with tachyons who believes that the only hope is to attempt to contact the past and warn them of the looming disaster.
Meanwhile back in 1962, Gordon Bernstein, a researcher at a La Jolla University in California, discovers a seemingly coded message while conducting an experiment involving nuclear resonance. As Bernstein begins to piece together the picture he faces an uphill battle to convince his peers and the world that there is indeed an urgent message contained in the data.
More than twenty years later, Gregory Benford's Timescape remains one of the classic science based time travel novels in SF literature. While Benford scores high marks for the scientific theory he advances in the novel, his characters and story telling tend to undermine the impact of the novel. Personally, I found the explanation of the science too dry and lecture-like which managed to dilute the dramatic tension that was building throughout the novel.
Another minor disappointment for me was the portrait of 1960s California depicted by Benford in the novel. For me a true test of time travel novel is the ability of the author to evoke a sense of the time period they are visiting through their writing. Unfortunately, I never felt a true connection to the 1960s California depicted. Granted I've never been to California, now or in the 1960s, but the historical elements seemed to come across as window dressing and not an integral part of the character's lives.
It's interesting to note that Timescape spans a 36-year period (1962-1998), and that 1980, the year it was written, marks the midway point. One can imagine Benford at the time of writing Timescape in 1980, looking back across the previous 18 years and noticing the pattern of environmental neglect. The alga blooms in Timescape are reminiscent of the blooms that plagued lake Erie of the late 1960s that were the result of phosphorous overloading. While the environmental neglect of the 1960s and 70s was tempered with a growing environmental movement, the 1980s marked a renewed pessimism with the combined threat of nuclear holocaust and environmental disaster looming larger than it had since the 1960s.
One paradox that was glossed over during the course of the book is that some of the principal characters that they were trying to communicate with in the 1960s may have very well been alive in the 1990s. The question that arises is, if the tachyon signals had reached the past and changed the course of history, then what would Gordon Bernstein and his colleagues of 1998 remember of their own time in 1960s? While one of the characters raises the issue and begins to research whether or not any of the people associated with the 1960s nuclear resonance projects are still alive in 1998, its never followed through. Although this apparent paradox is resolved through the parallel universe concept suggested at the end of the novel, it is rightly or wrongly avoided during the course of the novel.
The novel's conclusion raises some very important issues both related to the genre of time travel and to the area of environmental awareness. In tying the outcome of the novel to the Kennedy assassination, Benford demonstrates that the minor actions of one person (i.e. Bernstein's research) can have an unforeseen impact on the world at large and that coincidence can often play a large role in shaping that future. The new reality caused by Greogry Markham's experiments of the "future" raises the question of whether interfering with the past is worth it since our own world will remain unchanged as suggested by the outcome and that we will only succeed in influencing a "parallel" world.
If anything, I felt that Timescape works better as novel sounding an environmental alarm than it does at exploring time travel and alternate universes. Benford succeeds in demonstrating that hindsight is 20/20 and that while it's easy to see our mistakes in retrospect the real challenge lies in acknowledging the negative impact we are having on the environment here and now and work to change our own course. As we have seen in recent years the alarm that has been sounded regarding Global Warming has largely gone unheeded. Despite the efforts of some world leaders, the majority of the world's nations are largely content to continue their way of life and gamble that the future will hold the answer to all our environmental problems. Its doubtful that we will get a "wake up" call from the future telling us to change course now, so its up to us to make the effort.
I'd recommend Timescape to time travel enthusiasts and environmentalists alike with the caveat that they should be prepared for some dull exposition for the sake of some interesting concepts.
©2001 - A. Taylor
Review Posted: 2001-02-28
Review Posted: 2001-02-28
Gregory Benford Biography
The Wikipedia entry for Gregory Bendford, outlining his professional and personal milestones as well as a brief bibliography.
Garth's Eclectic Collection of Physics-Related Quotations
Taken from a variety of SF and fiction novels, Garth M. Huber of the University of Regina has compiled what he considers "to be examples of the best, or most interesting, use of physics laws or theories." Among the quotations is a passage from Timescape that illustrates both how the communication with the past migth work as well as trying to explain the paradox that it would create.