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Millennial Reviews XXXIII: Timescape by Gregory Benford (1981)


By Gregory Benford 

16 Feb, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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Gregory Benford
Pocket Books, 1981
366 pages

Synopsis: There are two eras covered in Timescape: the UK, 1998 and the US, 1962 – 1963.

The world in 1998 is deeply screwed: a chemical used in agriculture turns out to have an entirely unsuspected ability to reproduce, killing vast number of the fish in the sea. The UK is in another economic downturn and the World Council is pulling funding from many nonessential avenues of research.

John Renfrew and his colleagues have a method of generating tachyons, particles which only travel faster than life. Because of relativity, these tachyons can be used to send signals backwards in time. The problem of a receiver is solved when they realise that there is an experiment in 63 which would be able to detect the tachyons. Perhaps the current mess can be dealt with by warning the people in 1963 not to use the chemical.

Gordon Bernstein is puzzled about the noise in the experiment. He gradually realises it is a signal, although from where or who he is not sure. His superior, Lakin, is renewing his NSF grant and wants some interesting results but not adverse publicity. Unfortunately, a colleague of Gordon’s decides the signals are from ETIs and goes public. Gordon’s credibility is damaged, and he is passed over for a promotion. His relationship with his girlfriend suffers as well.

In the future, matters go from bad to worse: the chemical’s spread is exponential, and it was spread through the air, something that was not suspected before. When it gets into the food chain, it has lethal effects. As the 1998 sequence ends, life is undergoing an abrupt phase change, as most food becomes inedible. Most people are clearly doomed. Perhaps all are. The time message won’t help: as soon as significant enough changes occurs in the past, a new timeline forms, separate from and beyond communication with the future whose messages created it. Although they do not know it, tinkering in the past accidentally prevents JFK from being killed and the history of Gordon’s universe deviates from ours quite a bit by 1974.

In 1963, Gordon discovers that a colleague who investigated the chemical described in the tachyon signal has learned about the runaway reaction under controlled circumstances limiting its spread to one lab. Eventually, Gordon’s role and the signals’ role in the research is revealed and Gordon’s career begins to repair itself. Eventually, his physics work on tachyons indirectly gets him a Nobel.

Description does not do justice blah blah blah, blah blah blah. I need some boiler plate for this bit.

I was a bit afraid to go back and reread this, as I have grown to dislike Benford’s recent work rather a lot. I think it stands up fairly well, especially the in-fighting in Gordon’s department and the process of scientific research, where no doubt Benford’s professional background helped. I note that Pocket [In the person of Hartwell, maybe?] named an SF line after Timescape.

I thought the UK scenes were a bit flat and although Benford had help getting the details of the UK right, I thought the UK felt terribly dated, 1950s UK as opposed to even the 1970s UK. We are not talking anything like the peculiarities of Connie Willis’ UK in Doomsday Book, of course, whose England was apparently drawn from Wodehouse and other books of that era.

The technology is not terribly advanced, although one character has a sek” which seems to do many of the functions of a networked computer. On the other hand, this culture is heading down a negative S curve and has just hit the oh shit’ part of the S curve: any deficiencies may be attributable to a lack of investment funds.

There’s a World Council of some sort with a fair amount of power. No real hint of its history: no room for that, since this is a relatively lean book by today’s standards. Brazil is a major power [There’s a joke about how Brazil is always ‑going to be- a major power but never is one at the moment]. The Soviets do not appear to be.

There’s an amusing passage about the hazards of prediction concerning a detailed study in 1937 which missed things like the A Bomb and WWII. No doubt Benford was not at all surprised when the 1998 of Timescape didn’t come to pass [Given the mass extinction event, I am not unhappy this particular vision of the future was wrong], but in a universe with many branching timelines, perhaps it did – just not here.

A decent book, worth rereading.