Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Review of “Timescape” novel by Gregory Benford

In 1980 Gregory Benford took the concept that time is symmetrical (a landscape more so than a river) to heart, and looked equally far into the past as he did into the future. Two parallel stories, one in 1962 and another in 1998, detail a story of all-too-human scientists who may have found a link between the past, present and future.

On the verge of ecological disaster in 1998, Cambridge professor Renfrew attempts to send Morse code messages back in time using tachyons. The disturbances are picked up in La Jolla, California by Gordon Bernstein in the 1960’s, who struggles to interpret the fragmented data.

The Good:
“Timescape” became somewhat of a cross-over classic, managing to combine hard science with human insight in a realistic and appealing manner. The characters are all living, thinking people with varied personalities and perspectives (not just clones of a single persona or broad stereotypes) and individual talents and flaws. Their interactions are very human and believable in a genre not often recognized for characterization, dialogue and sociological depth.

More rare still, is that such writing ability would be combined with a solid mastery of science in a single author. The complicated theory, the detailed physics, the background of biology and astronomy and the in-depth knowledge of experimental procedure are all thoroughly grounded in fact, even as Benford uses them as a springboard for fiction. It becomes hardly surprising that Benford is a professor of physics and has had direct experience teaching, lecturing and researching in both California and London.

As a story, Benford covers a lot of ground. Both time periods are brought to life gracefully, the characters experience gentle arcs and the science proposes some serious questions. With several profound strokes (though not quite flourishes) the story is brought to an interesting climax and closes with a few sly ambiguities thrown in for fun.

The Bad:
My minor complaint about “Timescape” primarily extends from its major strength. There comes a point when Benford rigorous loyalty to depicting the repetitions, failures and triple-checkings of experimental procedure become fairly tedious. The scientific community skepticism that accompanies Gordon Bernstein’s initial discovery leads to a long swathe of tire-spinning as Benford tries to get the plot of the rut he’s created for himself. It is hard to overlook the fact that almost everything interesting about the initial premise is set-up in the first hundred pages and all the riveting action, twists and revelations are saved for the final hundred pages (of a 500 pg novel). The story survives in between on the strength of the aforementioned human element, but even this falls into a certain predictable rhythm on occasions.

Grade: A-

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