Friday, April 9, 2010

1980 Nebula, Campbell, and BSFA - TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford

I've always associated Gregory Benford's name with the hardest of hard sf - science fiction with real rigor in its physics. This is mainly because Benford is himself a working astrophysicist. This is the first Benford novel I've read, and I was surprised to find a very grounded piece that is much more about the lives of scientists and the culture of science than highwire applied astrophysics as the basis of a fictional world.

The novel tells two parallel stories. In 1998, the world is in a state of ecological crisis - the Green Revolution (which saved us from the fate of overpopulation that everyone in the '70s was so upset about) has turned into a disaster as genetically identical crops fail all at once at. At the same time, untested polymers have released toxic chemicals into the oceans, air, and food supply. Most of the novel takes place around Cambridge in England, where a group of physicists try to contact the past with tachyons in order warn them of what will happen and save the world. Meanwhile, the world begins to fall apart around them. We spend most of our time with John Renfrew, the head of the experiment, as he struggles to juggle his efforts to save the world while still spending time with his uber-housewife Marjorie. Slowly, the program's government liason, Ian Peterson, begins to dominate the 1998 sections - Benford apparently found him too compelling. Peterson is a privileged aristocrat and a ladies man, and it is fascinating to watch his uncomfortable reactions to the sudden deprivations and his efforts to get every women he meets into bed.

In 1962, physicist Gordon Bernstein at the fledgling San Diego campus of the University of California begins to notice the strange noise in his date. He soon discovers that it is a Morse code transmission with a great deal of biochemical data in it (the message from the future, you see). Many of his colleagues, however, refuse to believe that Bernstein is receiving strange messages from an unknown source, and Bernstein's career begins to suffer. Meanwhile, he has to deal with personal issues as his relationship with his girlfriend goes through a very rough patch, and his Jewish mother harangues him.

Despite the Big Ideas in here of ecological armageddon and communication through time, the novel is mostly a quotidian portrayal of scientists' lives, which is fine for most of the novel. The characters are richly drawn and Benford obviously has plenty of personal experience in the matter - his portrayal is certainly deeper and more balanced than the selfish and closed-minded cartoons of Flowers for Alrgenon...or even Asimov's The Gods Themselves. Still, after a few hundred pages of Ian's flirting, Marjorie's house parties, and Gordon's rotating fights with his department chair, girlfriend, and mother, it does start to get a bit old.

Actually, the novel's biggest flaw is how much the tachyon communication is neglected. Benford presents the communication like it's Sagan preparing a message for unknown aliens, but it's actually English-speaking researchers communicating in Morse code just a few decades back. And yet, the senders can't manage to find out how effective their messages are and can barely confirm that they are being received. Here's an idea: call up UCSD in 1998 and ask the physicists there if they got the message! And, if not....ask what would convince them! There's a lot of discussion in the novel about paradox, but no attempt is made to take the easy steps necessary to test any of the hypotheses.

By the end, it's clear that Benford has dodged the question so that he can make a big Twilight Zonesque reveal about the nature of time (I saw it coming from almost the beginning of the novel, but I've probably seen too much Star Trek time travel). It's an interesting conclusion, but it doesn't excuse or explain why the scientists were so damn dense.

Grade: B-

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