"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Timescape by Gregory Benford

One problem with reading an older book, especially if you've been reading his or her newer books, is that you can see how far the author has come. Timescape is an example of this. Considered a science fiction classic, this Nebula Award winning novel, written in 1980, is far from the author's most accomplished work. But the story still is a good one, an exploration of the paradox of time that still feels fresh.

Anachronisms abound. Benford sets his story in two time periods primarily — 1963 and 1998. The Earth of 1998 is an ecological mess, but the discovery of tachyons and experiments on their behavior leads to one physicist, with the support of a few others, to try sending a message back in time to warn an earlier era, specifically 1963 when experiments that could pick up Morse code messages in tachyons were being conducted, of the dangers of certain chemicals used in insecticides, etc. on the ocean and therefore, on Earth's climate, in the hope of stopping the disaster that threatens to destroy life on Earth.

I'll admit that I got lost in the scientific explanations, but I was struck by how much Benford hadn't anticipated in the areas of personal computers and other electronic gadetry that have transformed our lives. Even with the ecological horrors he envisioned, his 1998 seemed more primitive than I would have imagined a science fiction author would have conceived.

His skill with character development has come a long way since Timescape. The personal lives of the characters, while interesting, are probably the weakest part of the book. Some of these scenes feel clumsy or underdeveloped, even a bit stereotypical. But the story, itself, and the message it contains is worth reading. It's clear why it's considered a classic. It's an important work, not only for the message, but for its approach to time. Unlike the typical time travel novel, this mode of messaging seems remarkably plausible, even possible. Maybe we're receiving messages now from the future and haven't discovered them yet.

If you're a fan of science fiction, this should be on your Must Read list.