Sunday, 3 February 2013
Timescape by Gregory Benford - book review
Timescape by Gregory Benford is a nebula-award-winning science fiction novel, written in 1979. When it is set is important, because the novel is split between two different time periods: 1998, when the world environment is in near-collapse after the oceans start dying, and 1963. 1963 is when a message sent by the scientific team in 1998, a team of nuclear physicists, work with tachyons to send back a message in time. They pick 1963 because scientists then are just beginning to work in the field around tachyons, without knowing they exist. The first experiments with working with nuclear resonance equipment, which allows the messages from the tachyon beams to go back to 1963 to be received - is why 1963 is picked. Timescape is about the world as Benford foresaw in 1998, and looked back on in 1963, from his position in 1979, when he was writing it. We, as the reader, now look back on all of it as all in the past, and so this novel should feel dated, but it doesn't. Even though 1998 is 15 years ago now, I read it from the perspective of Benford, from 1980, and so looking ahead to one possible future of earth in 1998, and back on the past that was in 1963.
This sounds all complicated, like listening to the Doctor try to explain time business in Dr Who -
'Timeywimey" is a word I like now and hope to see in the dictionary one day. "A big bowl of wibbly wobbley timey wimey stuff," is how he describes it to Sally Sparrow in the first weeping angel episode. Of course, she's writing it from the future back to him in the past in an event that hasn't happened yet either, or is happening now and that she has to send back to make sure it happens in that way so they survive. In Timescape, the 1998 team are trying to get a message back to 1963 earth to not create - or use - a certain type of chemical that when it gets into the food chain, the molecule works as a virus and mutates within the food organisms so they become inedible.
All this in itself is cool. It's fascinating to watch the one team sending the message back in time, running the program, beaming it when they know the earth is in that position in the sky in 1963. Seeing how physics, astronomy, and chemistry are all needed to solve this riddle in 1963, where Gordon Bernstein is running the nuclear resonance experiment, and picking up the coded message that sounds like intereference in his experiment. He ends up going to chemists for the molecular code sent back, to astronomers for the latitude and longtitude delineations that he realizes gives a star in space - and a time period when the earth is there. The lives of all the scientists are explored, which gives a human grounding to the messiness that is time travel story. This also lets us see the inner lives of the scientists, especially Gordon, and John Renfrew from the 1998 team, who has to keep the message going back and wonders how they will know it is received, when the 1963 team can't send any message to the future. He wonders, if the world - the future - is changed by the 1963 team acting on the message received, how will they know in 1998? How do you experience the world changing? Will they be able to stop the diodom bloom in the oceans? Save the environment?
I won't give all the answers here, as how this is resolved is done in a very interesting manner. It involves an event everyone knows, so that the reader - you and I - are involved in imagining what if this happened? it's part of our history too. Very interesting, and very well done. And, the future is involved too, in a very cool way.
I really liked this book. I loved seeing how the scientists work out their problems - and they really are 'head in their clouds', distant, constantly trying to work it through while going through their daily lives. Like artists, creators,writers, they are involved in their minds working through data, especially when working through new experiments. How does a scientist win a prize? what does it take to be a scientist? what's it like to run with ideas while in the midst of doing something else? This is probably the best book on the inner workings of a scientific mind. It's highly readable. Trust me. I am not a scientist, and Benford wrote the physics in such a way that I don't feel like an idiot because I don't understand, but made me feel smart because I could understand the theories behind tachyons, planets in space and time, and how a message might be sent back in time. Brillliant, clever writing that makes the reader feel smart.
And it might just be possible to send a message back in time.....though it is still kind of timey-wimey at it's heart, too. Time travel is that.
Read for Carl's Sci-fi Experience, it is a really well-written, and one of the best books on how at least a message through time could be done.