Friday, January 07, 2011

Book Review: Timescape

Gregory Benford
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

Timescape is set in the very near future. The back story is that pesticides developed in the past few decades have made their ways into our oceans and have started changing the cellular structure of microorganisms there. These altered microorganisms consume oxygen-producing algae and are spreading like mad, slowly destroying the entire food chain. By 1998 (which is the future, in this book) this has led to massive shortages, poverty, and crime, and things are getting worse fast.

Meanwhile, a group of scientists has discovered that if they broadcast tachyons in controlled bursts to a specific location in galactic space – to a location that the Earth used to occupy – they can send a coded signal back in time. If they want to send a signal back 50 years, for example, they would beam the tachyons towards the point in space where the Earth would have been 50 years ago. They figure if they can do this, they can let the scientists of the past know about the dangers of the pesticides before the pesticides even get manufactured, and thus the future will be changed for the better.

The tricky part is that the scientists of the past don’t know about tachyons yet and won’t know the message is coming so they won't be looking for it. So the scientists of 1998 have to beam the tachyons to a time when they know there were nuclear resonance experiments going on and basically cross their fingers, hoping that the tachyons will come up as noise in those experiments and that the scientists of the past will see the noise, realize that the noise has a pattern, figure out how to decode the pattern, and believe it once they have decoded it.

The nuclear resonance experimenters of 1963 do pick up the noise, fortunately, but then have to go through a methodical scientific process of trying to figure out what it is. It feels agonizingly slow. They go down several blind alleys and get distracted by outside events. I wanted to yell at them, “It’s a message from the future already! Hurry up and figure it out before it’s too late!” But it is also realistic; you can't expect responsible scientists to go any faster with something like this. And this creates good suspense.

The science is, in fact, the best part of Timescape. Gregory Benford is a physicist himself, so the theories, processes, laboratories, and equipment are believable and solid.

The details of academia also add a lot of color and clearly are written by someone who knows what he's talking about. The characters go through totally realistic classes, publications, advisory sessions, departmental squabbles, presentations at inter-disciplinary colloquia, and even a doctoral candidacy examination.

Being a time-travel story of a sort, the book raises the usual questions about paradoxes. In particular, if the scientists of 1963 prevent the development of the pesticides, then the scientists of 1998 won't need to send the message back in time anymore. Will that mean that they won't have sent it after all and we will get stuck in an endless paradox loop? Or will the scientists of 1998 emerge from their lab babbling like madmen about an environmental catastrophe that everyone else knows was avoided decades ago? Benford’s resolution of all this is interesting.

What drags the book down is the human-interest filler stuck in between the scientific parts. I was totally bored by the personal lives of the scientists in both 1963 and 1998. I didn’t care about their love interests or their emotional baggage.

Also, when the characters are not talking about physics, their conversations are stilted and awkward. This is particularly true for the British characters, who sound forced and inauthentic. One of the Britons uses the word “sod” three times on one page and it clunks all three times.

Fortunately, the human interest sections make up only about a third of the book. If you skip over all of them, it makes for quite a good story.

(Note: see No Enemy But Time for a slightly different resolution to a similar time-travel paradox.)

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

I liked this book, but didn't really fall in love with it. Sort of an intellectual, detached book. I did really like that the scientists never found out if it worked -- I thought that was a great ending.

To your review, I read a summary that said this book won a poll of scientists as the most accurate SF representation of how science actually was practiced.

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