Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gregory Benford, Timescape (1980) SFMW 27

Gregory Benford's 1980 Nebula award-winning novel imagines what scientists of the late 1990s would do if they wished to send a message back in time to the early 1960s to warn their historic peers of the catastrophic effect that long-chain molecule pesticides have had upon the environment, and to thereby change the course of history.

Expressed in so reductive a manner, the text sounds preposterous and juvenile, but is in fact both nuanced, sophisticated and at time hugely enjoyable if the reader is prepared to suspend judgement on the absolute truth-value of the physics it contains. Benford's novel has often been praised for its hard science and plausible explanations of how tachyons could theoretically travel faster than light and, if aimed at the correct coordinates at the right time could theoretically send messages backwards or forwards in time.

Benford's work contains a number of dramatic set pieces: the discovery of the note in the bank vault proving that messages have been received; Greg Markham's fevered dream state as he perishes in an air crash in the original timeline whilst resolving crucial equations; the fact that Kennedy survives the assassination attempt which killed him in our reality as a consequence of a student interrupting Oswald whilst fetching a journal featuring an article by Gordon Bernstein discussing his discovery of the 'spontaneous resonance effects' - Markham's transmissions from the future - and the inevitable meeting of the two protagonists in an alternate future that they have both been instrumental in constructing.

The latter conceit is that which precipitates the final sequence of occurrences depicted in the gripping last 30 pages of the novel and elevates the work above the status of being merely 'interesting but worthy'. It is as clever a re-imagining of such a hackneyed historic event as a reader is ever likely to encounter.

The novel does have its weaknesses. Beyond Bernstein in the 1960s and Markham in the 1990s, Benford and his sister-in-law Hilary Foister Benford, whom the author credits as having 'contributed significantly to the manuscript' in a special acknowledgment, have a tendency to indulge themselves in some broad but generally unconvincing characterisations in the persons of their extensive ensemble cast. The bit-part characters' contributions to the plot are slight and their antics can give the work something of a 'soap opera' feel at times. The novel could easily have lost at least a quarter of its 400 pages without impacting on its thematic development in any way. For example, whilst it's nice to meet Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse (p. 173), and read a peon of praise in honour of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (p. 213) you have to wonder what they are doing in the book.

Overall, Timescape nevertheless ranks as one of the most enjoyable entries in the SF Masterworks series, and despite the Benfords' tendency towards the linguistically gaudy (some of the laboured puns the characters are forced to opine can grate, for example) the work contains some thought-provoking, powerfully conveyed ideas:

'Behind the equations were immensities of space and dust, dead but furious matter bending to the geometric will of gravity, stars like match heads exploding in a vast night, orange sparks that lit only a thin ring of child planets. The mathematics was what made it all; the pictures that men carried inside their heads were useful but clumsy, cartoons of a world that was as subtle as silk, infinitely smooth and varied. After you had seen that, really seen it, the fact that worlds could exist within worlds, that universes could thrive within our own, was not so huge a riddle. The mathematics buoyed you' (p. 176).

'He had a sudden sense that time was here, not a relation between events, but a thing. What a specifically human comfort it was to see that time as immutable, a weight you could not escape. Believing that, a man could give up swimming against this river-run of seconds and simply drift, cease battering himself on time's flat face like an insect flapping against a blossom of light' (p. 410).

'No matter how the days moved through them, there always remained the pulse of things coming, the sense that even now there was yet still time' (p. 412).

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