Monday, June 16, 2008

Review - Timescape

by Gregory Benford
1980 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And we're back after a long break for one week before I go on vacation. Still I'm going to make the most of this.

In the dark future of 1993 the world is on the brink of collapse. Social, economic, and ecological factors have driven everyone to the edge but a scientist at Cambridge holds out a thin hope. He's learned how to generate tachyons and hopes to use them to transmit a message that could be detected in the past. Unfortunately no one knows if history can be changed or what happens when a paradox is resolved but it's an intriguing enough of an idea that a major government official throws all of his weight behind the project.

In 1963 an ambitious scientist detects regular shifts in electron spin that appears to be a message but large portions of it are garbled. Controversy around this discovery risks his career and as he tries to proceed scientifically he is stymied by people who want to suppress the discovery since it doesn't fit with their views and those who see far more in it than he does.

From this you might get the impression that this book is about the scientific process and how politics affects it. And while there is some of that in the book what its really about is the personal lives of all of these characters. The reason I didn't mention that in the plot description is because despite being the majority of the book those aspects have no plot. The scientists all have troubled home lives where they fight with their spouses as they work harder but there's no personal growth or examination; it's just like being around when spouses fight. The politician spends his the book being a jerk and seducing every woman he meets but nothing actually happens with it. The details that Benford spends the majority of the text on feels like repetitive padding for the actual novel.

Not that I was very thrilled with with the science plot. Let's say you're a a scientist in 1963 examining electron spin and you notice regular changes in it that in correspond to four syllable English words and complex phrases in morse code. You've received roughly three hundred words like this which corresponds to roughly five thousand distinct regular signals. How would you procede:

A. It has to be naturally occurring spontaneous changes in electron spin and the language detected in it is just coincidence even if it's a coincidence with the odds of locating a precise table spoon of sand in the Sahara desert.

B. You sit on this for nearly a year not even looking into it deeper despite thinking it is being caused by some artificial phenomena which is completely unknown to science and an understanding of it would put one in the running for a Nobel prize.

C. It's aliens! Or from the future!

The answer according to the book is B with most respectable scientists responding to it with A and a few with C. While the science fiction answers shouldn't be where a scientist would look to electron spins dramatically shifting regularly via no observable cause would be a dramatic discovery. And yet the administration thinks it would be better to suppress research into something would make their ambitious institute the most prestigious on earth while the young scientist just sets it aside rather than pursuing work that would make his career. If Benford had chosen a most reasonably explainable method of signal transmission this wouldn't be so bad: an administrator might not want a promising scientist to waste their time on a message received by an understood principle. As it stands, though, it makes the scientists in the 60's all just look lazy.

Those scientists are not just Benford's fictional creations. He name drops every single major physicist from the 1950's and early 60's in the book. Most of them show up for extended scenes over the course of the book. At first its cute but as it goes on and on it becomes annoying. Benford even manages to drop himself into his own novel for that extra touch of egotism.

There's a moment in the novel when one of the administrators relates an anecdote to the young scientist and he realizes that it is the same one he told before; it was a common story and the people he was telling it to (famous real-life scientists from the 60's, of course) were being polite when they laughed since they almost certainly heard it before. I wish Benford had applied that principle to himself. Timescape is filled with just about every common college and science anecdote that I think I've ever heard. A lot of the book is just parroting other people's clever phrases and stories while trying to squeeze them into the narrative.

If those complaints aren't enough I also have a petty one: Timescape features the worst dust jacket I think I have ever encountered. Not only is the description wrong on multiple key plot points it gives away the ending of the book. Not in a subtle making the narrative obvious way, it literally comes out and tells you what the last chapter is. There wasn't much in this book worth holding onto but there was some suspense in one key plot point which is completely spoiled by this.

Timescape feels like an attempt to mate a science fiction novel with a degraded photocopy of what some people think mainstream novels are supposed to be about. Of course good mainstream novels feature development in the characters; this is just a collection of unpleasant to read about people told in a way that just makes them boring and petty. Neither side is satisfactory and I can't recommend it.