Thursday, 26 June 2014

How soon is now?

In my quest to read Every Time Travel Story Ever(TM), I recently passed through Greg Benford's Timescape. I quite enjoyed it, certainly enough to actually engage me to the point where I had to read the final few chapters just to see what happened, which is actually quite rare in books these days, but at the end of it I felt that sensation, like when you've enjoyed something like a MacDonalds or a whole bottle of wine, but you know at the end of it that it hasn't actually been a very satisfying experience. Somehow, in spite of the addictive quality that kept you turning the pages, there's something empty about the whole thing - something missing.
The book is about a future time - in this case 1998 (the book was written in 1980) managing to send messages back to the past, in this case 1962/3. The 1998 world is centred around a research project in Cambridge, UK and the 1962 world around various physics labs in southern California. Greg Benford is a physics professor in southern California, and so there's no prizes for guessing which bits come across as the most well realised, although actually I quite enjoyed his future England as well. The 1998 world is in the grip of one of those eco-catastrophes that used to occasionally break the surface during the 80s, when we could tear our attention away from The Bomb, like Ben Elton's Stark, and Alternative 3. In fact, there is something very old fashioned about the futuristic Britain in Timescape, even taking into account that it takes place among upper middle class suburbia, academia and civil servants. There's something very 1950s, John Wyndham, Quatermass-like about this slow apocalypse, although I also suppose that the idea of Britain ravaged by social disputes, power rationing and a general feeling of impending chaos will be familiar to anyone who lived here during the 1970s. Still, for all of his actually fairly credible nods towards future technology, bookshops closing because everyone does everything on screens and so on, it does all feel a bit twee.
The physics is quite well done, moderately interesting, probably quite scientifically valid (at the time) - he is a physics professor after all. But the book is let down by the characters and their relationships. Maybe we live in a different era now, but they all feel a bit perfunctory, and the women especially so - none of them have any agency within the plot. In spite of this I came to empathise with some of the characters by the end - even uptight 60s physicist Gordon Bernstein (with a New York Jewish mother straight out of central casting by way of Woody Allen), who does the right thing by his grad student (if not his free love, free thinking Californian girlfriend) and whose dogged insistence that the messages are from the future kills his career and social life. I also liked Markham, the brilliant but oblivious uptime physicist who works it all out just too late, and Peterson, the philandering Man from the Ministry who knows it's all going to end badly and who is determined to have a good time while there's enough of a world to have a good time in.
But the problem with the resolution of the book concerns its central paradox. If you're from a doomed future trying to tell an unsuspecting past about the mistakes you've made, then what possible effect can you have? If you successfully changed the past then you wouldn't be in this situation now, so clearly you failed. It's the Grandfather Paradox writ large. Benford devotes a lot of time to theories about tachyons and standing waves and interference effects, but even as he builds the tension, he goes for the obvious solution, and it was quite a disappointment as I saw it coming several miles away - although this may be as much a symptom that I've been reading too much time travel fiction recently as anything else. Still, as Gordon's Californian girlfriend might say, 'I was like, yah, multiple parallel worlds - like, duhhh!' Also, weirdly, in the light of the fact that I read Stephen King's present-day-to-1963 time travel story 11-22-63 recently, he makes the Kennedy Assassination one of the big nexus points (or at least the point where it becomes obvious you're now in a parallel past).
You know, I really do have to finish The Once And Future King (Uh Huh Huh) soon.

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