Timescape by Gregory Benford

Vertigo

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Difficult one this; the core science fiction concepts and story were good, the horrendous sexism not so much so.

Timescape was published in 1980 and set partly in the early sixties and partly in the ‘future’ late nineties. The later sections are set in a world of ecological collapse with poisonous blooms forming in the oceans and facing possible global disaster. In an attempt to avert this disaster a team of scientists at Cambridge university are attempting to use tachyons to send a warning message back to 1962. This message is/was duly received by another team of scientist at the university of California in 1962.

Despite the now very dated feel of the ‘science’ it still formed a good solid core to a good hard science fiction story even attempting to give a plausible defence of the causality issues. I would even go so far as to say this element of the book was very worthy of the awards the book collected at the time. However, I sadly have to take exception to this quote: “The novel was widely hailed by both critics of science fiction and mainstream literature for its fusion of detailed character development and interpersonal drama with more standard science fiction fare such as time travel and ecological issues.” This ‘interpersonal’ drama was, for me, the most painful aspect of the book in almost every way possible and very nearly pushed me to not finish the book.

The two settings were cliched beyond belief. Was sixties California really that sexualised? I wasn’t there then and I guess Benford was so maybe. But it all seemed so full of social and sexual freedom and angst that it actually felt more like a comic satire of that era and, frankly, embarrassing to read. At least when it stuck to the science aspects it was good, if a little self-indulgent regarding academic status rivalry. The nineties setting was far worse. The entire social environment around middle class Cambridge academia was like a cliched Hollywood vision of the oh so correct and twee imaginary world of English suburbia, with the professor’s wife obsessed with make a success of the dinner party and keeping all the conversations on a suitably genteel track. And if that wasn’t bad enough it seemed like every male spent half their time eying up every female that appears with excessively long examinations of their appearance including breast size, thighs and bum. With one positively predatory married man who seem to continuously move from one affair to the next including a couple of colleagues wives and a picking up a shop girl in a book shop. And this same person feeling guilty about reading someone’s private mail because he is, after all, a gentleman! The ‘interpersonal drama’ also had nothing whatsoever to do with the main story making it feel like purely gratuitous ‘interpersonal tosh.’

The main story would have been a solid four stars, but all that peripheral rubbish was one star at best leaving me feeling generous giving the book an overall three star rating. Disappointing as it could have been so good!

3/5 stars
 

williamjm

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I read it a few years ago, I agree that the main plot was interesting but the characterisation was lacking.
 

Vertigo

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I read it a few years ago, I agree that the main plot was interesting but the characterisation was lacking.
Yes, I've red a few of Benford's books over the years and he is definitely stronger on the science and plot than the characters.
 

Venusian Broon

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It's been decades since I've read the book, but re: the attitudes to women, maybe Benford based the US physicist on Richard Feynman - someone who, in real life, liked to relax and work on physics problems in a strip bar (and yes oogle too, he was pretty 'sexed up').
 

Don

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In regards to my own science fiction taste, plot is everything and characterization is nothing. Although this novel promises to deliver an interesting plot its characterization constantly gets in my way. It quickly becomes far too much work to trudge through all of the boring details of other people's lifestyles in search of the next plot point. I've bounced off of this novel thrice due to its excessive characterization.
 

Vertigo

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It's been decades since I've read the book, but re: the attitudes to women, maybe Benford based the US physicist on Richard Feynman - someone who, in real life, liked to relax and work on physics problems in a strip bar (and yes oogle too, he was pretty 'sexed up').
Except it was the one of the US physcists who was cuckolded by the predatory and aristocratic British International Committee member. It's one thing going to strip bars and another writing about someone bedding other peoples wives like it was the most normal thing in the world to be doing. Sorry, it was just the whole attitude of this character, and the book in general, that pretty much treated all women in the book as objects, and as though that was the natural thing to do. I guess it just got under my skin a bit!

But I think the real problem, for me, was that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. It might have been more acceptable or at least bearable if it had had any significance to the plot. Also that, according to Wikipaedia: "The novel was widely hailed by both critics of science fiction and mainstream literature for its fusion of detailed character development and interpersonal drama with more standard science fiction fare such as time travel and ecological issues." Which is almost exactly what I had a problem with, as that interpersonal drama had nothing to do with the science fiction story. It was like two separate books; for me at least, there was no fusion in evidence.
 

Don

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But I think the real problem, for me, was that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. It might have been more acceptable or at least bearable if it had had any significance to the plot. Also that, according to Wikipaedia: "The novel was widely hailed by both critics of science fiction and mainstream literature for its fusion of detailed character development and interpersonal drama with more standard science fiction fare such as time travel and ecological issues." Which is almost exactly what I had a problem with, as that interpersonal drama had nothing to do with the science fiction story. It was like two separate books; for me at least, there was no fusion in evidence.

To paraphrase a line from a movie named Full Metal Jacket: Somewhere inside there's a plot struggling to get out.
 

Venusian Broon

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@Vertigo I should point out that Richard Feynman, I think, was pretty much a party "animal" (but teetotal) and loved women and charming them, but as far as I know didn't objectify them etc...

I can barely remember the story - was just throwing out a thought - I just remember the science bits (sort of) with regards to trying to arrange a signal to be sent back in time.
 

Vertigo

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@Vertigo I should point out that Richard Feynman, I think, was pretty much a party "animal" (but teetotal) and loved women and charming them, but as far as I know didn't objectify them etc...

I can barely remember the story - was just throwing out a thought - I just remember the science bits (sort of) with regards to trying to arrange a signal to be sent back in time.
Yes, that was my impression of what I had heard of Feynman, which is very different to this. But maybe I'm just a bit sensitive to it. I do find that it, sadly, puts me off many early SF books. It doesn't matter how much I tell myself it's just how it was in those days it doesn't make it any easier for me to read. And yet see my comments on The Calculating Stars where I'm also unhappy, though on a much smaller scale, about being lectured on feminism.
 

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