Gregory Benford’s Timescape was an important novel when it was published in 1980 as it was one of the first science fiction novels to accurately depict scientists as people. Praised by critics for its accessibility and mix of character development, interpersonal drama and SF themes, it received the 1980 Nebula and 1981 John W. Campbell Memorial awards. Benford has written some of my favourite novels in the past – notably Great Sky River -, so I’ve always felt a little guilty that I’ve not read Timescape. Well, I finally got round to it, and while it’s still a good read, it’s dated more than I thought it would have.
Timescape‘s story is an interesting one, topical in 1980 and it still is today. It’s told from two different viewpoints, both 18 years distant from the novel’s publication in 1980. The first storyline takes place in 1998, at a time when the Earth is falling apart due to human waste; ravaged by ecological experimentation, the climate has changed drastically, giving rise to algal blooms and threatening numerous species. In England a team of scientists connected to the University of Cambridge, headed by John Renfrew, begins a project to try and contact the past to warn them of the effects their experimentations shall have in the future. The second thread of the story involves Gordon Bernstein, a young scientist at the University of California, La Jolla, who in 1962 begins to notice interference in one of his experiments – a message he tries to unravel…
As the critics noted Timescape‘s strongest aspect is Benford’s depiction of his characters. They’re scientists and often deal with complicated equations, but the story rarely becomes bogged down by details because it’s about much more than science. The characters are complicated, textured; the intricacies of their scientific worlds are well sketched out, but likewise are their private lives portrayed with careful detail. Ian Peterson, who oversees Renfrew’s project, is a womanizing member of the World Council who becomes infatuated with Renfrew’s wife Marjorie; Renfrew’s reserved insecurities are played out throughout much of the novel; Bernstein’s growing obsession with deciphering the message begins to impact his relationship with girlfriend Penny. It’s a balance of science and believable drama that few writers achieve in SF.
The characterisations serve another purpose in the novel as well: they draw a parallel with Benford’s scientific worlds. There’s no way around the science in Timescape; it’s detailed and to make his ideas accessible, Benford uses the characters as a bridge. Bernstein’s storyline, for instance, revolves just as much around his interactions with Penny, showing a distinct collision between their different ideologies: the worlds of a Democrat and a Republican, a New York Jew and a Californian Gentile. If the reader can accept the collision of their worlds as reality, then accepting the collision between 1962 and 1998 seems more believable. Likewise with each metaphysical jump in the novel, a physical equivalent is created to reflect it; the shelves in Marjorie’s and Renfrew’s kitchen shift each time a new scientific idea is introduced, starting crooked, before straightening, and becoming aslant again. The literary elements work to support the scientific concepts, forming a rather unique hybrid where no element can exist without the other.
This is where Timescape started to date for me, though. At times it felt like Benford created his characters purely to draw those parallels; he reinforces them frequently and at times the characters slow the story more than the science. Perhaps that shows how much has changed since 1980, that we’re more accepting and understanding of hard science in a story now, not needing it to be meshed with endless characterization to be accessible. Still, given the amount of detail in the characters, it’s strange that several just disappear toward the end of the novel. Marjorie, after her affair, barely appears again; neither does Penny. It feels like they served their purpose and were just discarded at the end. Timescape has also dated with its technology; limited computers, no mobile phones… having lived through the differences, the 1998 storyline feels more foreign than 1962 (which is the point, in the end).
Putting those details aside, though, Timescape holds up well. Its story is interesting, the science is still current, and its mix of science and characterisation is rare in a genre not often recognized for its depth. It remains accessible to people who might not normally read SF, as well as to fans of the genre, and is well worth reading for anyone interested in visiting (or revisiting) Benford’s worlds.