Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review of Timescape by Gregory Benford



A back cover quote from Paul McAuley on the SF Masterworks edition of Gregory Benford’s 1980 Timescape reads: “Perhaps the best fictional account of scientists at work.”  Physics nerds more often better readers of science fiction than subject material for science fiction, the quote induces a certain foreboding: ohhh no, a dry account of scientists in the laboratory, working over the minutiae of some esoteric niche of knowledge, tension and drama pushed far, far to the background.  But Benford pulls it off.  Not a Hollywood blockbuster, Benford’s book nevertheless integrates hard science fiction with the lives of scientists—in- and outside of work, successfully, and as a result reads with more interest than a number of space operas. But I still wonder which features worse sexism...

Oscillating back and forth in time, Timescape opens in Oxford 1998 with the discovery of technology that can send faster than light tachyons back in time. Chemical industry practices having caused algal blooms that significantly disrupt world commerce, the device is used to send messages back in time in an attempt to make scientists in 1963 aware, and thus possibly able to devise a plan to thwart the catasrophe.  Scientists in La Jolla, San Diego the receivers of the messages, at first they don’t know what they have.  A range of hypotheses formed why a physics experiment would produce coherent communications involving chemical formulas and astronomical coordinates, a large amount of speculation and skepticism—from aliens to backfiring equipment—is fomented within the scientific community.  The careers of those involved in both timeframes constantly in doubt, averting the catastrophe is no guarantee.

The astute sci-fi reader will immediately pick up the quandary: why send a message into the past in an attempt to change the present if the present exists as it does?  (Think Marty McFly’s fading photo.)  With a bit of time travel hand waving (tachyon style), Benford brushes this paradox away, and instead focuses the narrative on the characters at each end of the communication channel.  Time travel nerds will enjoy the manner in which Benford proposes his scenario, all else would do better to leave be the details and enjoy the stories of the humans involved.

In the 1998 timeframe, with England stuck in an economic rut dealing with the catastrophe, money for science is available only in small quantities.  The resulting competition drawing out all manner of personality, the scientists at Oxford push and promote their beliefs about how the technology should/could best be used while trying to protect the research territory they perceive as their own. Egos subtly lifted and bruised as the project is implemented, the 1963 timeframe also features its share of character clashes.  A department head who wants the glory, a lazy postgrad with natural talent, and a young scientist fighting with his mother as much as the forces at work within academia—scientific theory is but a minor element to survival in the university research and professorial environment.  Benford’s hard sci-fi concept may not hold much water, but the characters living it certainly do.

As such, Timescape leans closer to science fiction than science.  Benford a scientist who can actually produce prose, the characters, for as stock as they occasionally seem to be given the setting, are fully hued.  The discussion, the arguments, the hierarchy, the decisions, the proverbial chest thumping and maneuvering—all come informed by Benford’s day job as professor and scientist, yet are related in readable, literary fashion.  Neither lush nor minimalist, the text shows a writer in control, moving with purpose.

What Benford needs to be taken to task for is sexism. Granted, the laboratory and academic environment of the sciences in the 1960s was probably not flooded with women, the 1998 setting, however, and the opportunity it presents to feature a more progressive view of society, is likewise nearly void of women. Renfrew’s wife, for example, is still a Betty Sue, stay at home, cooking, cleaning mom.  But gender stereotypes are only the half of it.  Numerous are the descriptions of women as sex objects conveyed in troubling fashion. Granted, one of the characters is an inveterate womanizer, and thus the scenes featuring him may be seen as demonstrative rather than sexist.  But that there are so many other lines of a similar hue in scenes without that character, a problem arises regarding Benford’s presentation of women.  “They moved into the living room to watch [the evening news].  Penny took off her blouse, revealing small, well-shaped breasts with large nipples.”  Does the scene lead to sex, or a usage of the breasts and nipples for plot purposes?  No.  It’s just thrown in for “good measure.”  In another scene, a man enters a room and sees a woman sitting. “The low seat made her seem bottom heavy. Between pale thighs he saw the unending oval yawn.”  Does the “oval yawn” add anything to the scene?  Again, no.  And there are numerous other such quotes (which I have put at the end of this review), so many that it draws real concern about Benford’s views regarding women.

While admittedly sounding nice to the ear, I can’t get over the title: Timescape.  With only two years out of humanity’s thousands featured, not to mention the slice of society viewed is limited to scientists and their families, and moreover, that no grand statement is made regarding knowledge or survival, the story fails to cover the breadth of time and existence hinted at.  That being said, any other title may not have grabbed the attention to the same degree…

In the end, Timescape is a good work of soft and hard science fiction (with reservations) that emphasizes the human elements inherent to a very detailed, but hypothetical scientific discovery.  Like a heavily expanded version of the first novella in Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves called “Against Stupidity…”, Benford’s novel deals with the realities of life in the laboratory, front office, family lives, and politics of science, scientists, and academia.  Presenting a spectrum of personalities, not all of whom live up to the typical altruism of the god scientist at work, Timescape’s quality can be found in it character presentation, as much as the development of tachyon technology.  Certainly most readers of space opera and planetary adventure will find the novel dry, but there will remain a portion who will be pleasantly surprised with the human stories Benford tells.  The sexism, well…


The following are additional troubling quotes from Timescape wherein women are treated as mere sex objects:

1. “Peterson studied her covertly while leafing through some of the books in front of him. Nice legs.  Fashionably dressed in some frilly peasant style he disliked…”  Peterson and his voyeurism goes on to seduce the girl, and afterwards, she compliments him on his sexual prowess.

2. Here, Renfrew reflects back on his memories of being a teenager: “faking a certain coarse but necessary familiarity with sex and the workings of those mysterious gummy organs” Gummy organs???  C’mon, is this Cory Doctorow, or a mature novel featuring adults and adult issues? At no point is a man’s penis described as a “flaccid worm” or “knobby tentacle”…

3. “She was dressed in white Levis and a high-necked white top of some slithery material.  Nothing under it, he noted with approval.”  It goes without saying (perhaps), this mention of  bra-lessness adds nothing to the scene...

4. And here, Benford attempts elegance with his sexism: “Here was the real thing: a naturalness, a womanly fervor, a clarity of vision.  And anyway, she had ample, athletic thighs that moved under the silky dress as though her whole body were constrained by the cloth, capable of joyful escape.”  The dead giveaway is, of course, “And anyway”…

And there are several more such quotes, but I gave up writing them down…

1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU!!! He's such a sexist writer, throughout his catalogue.,,

    ReplyDelete