Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I originally read this decades ago, not sure if it was before or after it won a Nebula. I recall liking it, but my recent re-read proved I had retained little memory of it, not even the climactic events, only the broadest of strokes. I do remember that many books and stories from this period used the hypothesized tachyon particle as a plot device. If that particle did exist as postulated, it would be one that could travel faster than the speed of light. I'm not sure if anyone else utilized it in quite the same way as Benford did here.
Timescape is set in two different time periods, both of them equidistant in future and past from the time of publication. In 1998, John Renfrew is among a group of British scientists who endeavor to send a tachyon signal backwards in time, in hopes that past scientists can reverse the environmental disasters they are facing. In 1962, University of California San Diego professor and researcher Gordon Bernstein is confused by anomalous noise picked up during one of his experiments on indium antimonide, at that time one of the primary materials used as a semiconductor. He and his graduate assistant eventually notice a recurring pattern in the noise, on and off sequences they speculate could be a nearby signal interfering with their readings. When transcribed as if a Morse code message, they find warnings about certain chemical compounds that lead to virulent algal blooms in ocean waters. Inquiries to members of the chemistry faculty prove fruitless at first, as no knowledge of such compounds exist.
Benford is a physicist himself, with both MSc and PhD from UCSD. He even placed himself (and his twin brother Jim) in the narrative, as students of Bernstein's. The details of scientific research, as well as the politics of academia, seems realistic. The signal sent from the future is to a point in the sky corresponding to the track the solar system takes in relation to galactic center. If tachyons were real, traveling faster than light, that signal would transcend time and be receivable on Earth in the past. Renfrew even included sky coordinates in his message to tell the receiver where the message is coming from, where Earth will be in their future. Bernstein's initial report is rejected by his superior, but he persists in monitoring the signal. In the meantime, chemists have experimented with compounds they think are similar in value to the ones reported in the messages, and have duplicated algal blooms in tests. When Bernstein finally takes a leap of faith that the signals are from the future, he goes public with the information. In the future, the situation continues to worsen, leading to disease, death, societal breakdown, with the scientists convinced their efforts have failed.
It's a slow starter, and for a while I thought I might not finish it this time, just write a short negative review. I even set it aside several times, but eventually continued. The opening chapters do not present the problem in an interesting way, and character development is so sketchy I had a hard time remembering individuals when the narrative switched back and forth from the two time periods. Then, once it became more about the process of science as opposed to the details, individual motivations became clearer and the characters became more distinguishable. If you eliminated the future scenario it would still be an interesting look at the rigors of scientific research, from hypothesis to experimentation to analysis, which sometimes conflicts with the vision of the academic establishment, and which can also lead to strain on personal relationships. Written in third person, the viewpoint character in the future shifts from Renfrew, to American colleague Greg Markham, to World Council member Ian Peterson, as well as their spouses and assorted other assistants, friends, and relatives. Bernstein remains the primary viewpoint character in the past.
In some synopses of the book, time travel is listed as one of the themes. That's misleading, since the only thing that travels backwards in time is information. Time paradoxes are another matter. What would happen if scientists in the past realized what was at stake and reversed the processes that led to the crisis in the future? Would the future world transform to one of less chaos, the people not even aware of the change? Or, as has been speculated by some, would a change in the past create a divergent future, cut off from the timeline of the original future that sent the message back? That appears to be what Benford is presenting, but it may be he didn't continue the future narrative long enough to be sure. There is a specific event, precipitated by Bernstein's work, that has a different result from our reality. Does this mean Earth has diverted the tragedy, or can that bleak future still lay ahead? Either, or, maybe both, just in a slightly different fashion? Each reader can decide for themselves.
Throughout this read I vacillated on how I would rate it, initially thinking two stars might be too high, then later passages improved so much I was considering four stars. I settled on a balance of three, and while I'm sure I'll not read it again, it is one I could recommend for those who like realistic, earth-based science in their fiction. One of the major factors for the middling rating is instances of sexist, racist, and homophobic statements and actions by several characters. Not just in the past either, which might be expected, but also in the future, primarily from Ian Peterson. I've read several of his other novels and shorter works, but it's been a while, and my memory being how it is I cannot recall any instances of similar content. I am not implying any of those opinions apply to Benford himself, since in several scenes at least one character expressed criticisms of such pronouncements.
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