First published in 1980, “Timescape” won the Nebula Award that year. It is a science fiction novel, dealing with ecological disaster in the year 1998. There seems to be no way to resolve what is happening, but technology that uses tachyons allow researchers to attempt communication with the past. In 1962, a scientist starts to pick up signals that appear to form messages.
This was a really good idea. It’s not particularly original, but it’s a solid premise for an exciting story. It is hard science fiction, with a lot of physics and scientific discussion (the author is a physicist). Tachyons are a hypothetical particle that travel faster than the speed of light, and in the context of relativity this means that they can travel through time. There is no evidence that tachyons actually exist, but they were a useful tool to drive the technique in this novel by which the future could communicate with the past. While the science was over my head at times, I felt that the author’s attempt to really think about and explain what was going on was excellent.
“Markham drew space-time diagrams and told Peterson how to understand them, stressing the choice of slanted coordinates…Markham drew wavy lines to represent tachyons launched from one spot, and showed how, if they were reflected about in the laboratory, they could strike another portion of the lab at an earlier time.”
Unfortunately there was little else to be praised. There is a lot of time spent on characters that are really not that interesting. Maybe the author was trying to be realistic here – after all, most people, including scientists, aren’t leading exciting lives. I do think that much less time should have been spent on the scientist in 1963 and his trouble with his girlfriend, his mother, and his boss, because these aspects were not contributing to the plot. His colleagues thinking he had gone crazy was more relevant given the situation, and should have been given more time. Instead the character of Bernstein is a rather cliché individual, a Jewish New Yorker who is living with an equally cliché Californian woman (who surfs, of course), and has disputes with her about their relationship, as well as disputes with his cliché Jewish mother about why he doesn’t find a nice Jewish girl. None of this has any bearing on the ostensible plot of the book.
The parts of the book that dealt with the future were even worse. There was a good opportunity to do some world-building of a future society in collapse, and Benford does very little with it. He tells the reader that there is power-rationing, that there are food shortages, and that there is social unrest. Otherwise this world in most respects is exactly like the 1960s world, to the extent that I was constantly rechecking the dates given at the start of each chapter to make sure which time was being discussed. The characters are just as bland, to the extent of being interchangeable. Woman in general are relegated to housewives and girlfriends. One of the male characters, Petersen, is supposed to be a powerful leader, but does little to contribute, spending his time instead on having sex with as many women as possible.
“Did they have an open marriage? How direct an approach would she tolerate?”
There are few women in the scientific community and they are barely seen. So essentially the two time periods have nothing to choose between them, and the author has made no attempt to imagine a future culture, making it instead a carbon copy of the past. Class consciousness and snobbery is apparently alive and well in the future. The poor are referred to as having no need for power (which is being rationed) because they live on tinned beans and beer. The scientist Renfrew’s wife gets scared when people come begging, and complains ‘why can’t they go to their own kind’? Strikes are blamed on the unions. The privileged people in this story, even as society is falling apart, cling on to their perceived superiority, and the author appears to approve of this attitude.
While the time-travel concept was well explored, the whole toxin that was destroying the earth was not. We learn very little about it, except that it started in the ocean, became airborne, got into the food and was killing people. Various vague statements about pesticides as the root cause are not explored or developed. It would seem that the author kept the science to what he knew, and stayed away from areas with which he was less familiar. The problem of paradox in time-travel is briefly discussed by the scientists, and ultimately dismissed with the vague idea that they must be careful not to change the past too much. How this was going to happen is unclear. We do not hear from the future people again, and we are left with the musings of the scientist from the 60s and some vague conjecture about parallel universes. He believes that the message has stopped because what it set out to do has worked, and those people have split off into some kind of parallel universe. There is no way to prove this.
“The future world that had sent Gordon the messages was gone, unreachable. They had separated sometime in the fall of 1963; Gordon was sure of that.”
There seems to be no evidence of this, or why Gordon could be sure of anything.
SPOILER – There is one moment only towards the end that is of interest – that signals may be coming from more than one time period. It was for me the most intriguing idea in the book, but it was only briefly touched on.
“Attempt contact from 2349.”
This is a surprise message received in 1998 by Renfrew who is still transmitting, shortly before he loses power completely. After he leaves the lab the reader does not hear from him again. It was a point of interest, but it is gone in a flash.
“Timescape” is a good idea in search of a better writer. Benford may have come up with an intriguing premise, but utterly failed to deliver a well written story. How this book won any award is a mystery.