The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 13 June 2003


by Gregory Benford

The future in this science fiction novel is 1998. The world environment is collapsing, and a deadly diatom bloom has sprouted in the Atlantic Ocean. Time is running out. Using the recent discovery that the theoretical tachyon is actually a real superluminal particle, a group of Cambridge scientists and politicians make a last-ditch effort to head off catastrophe by signaling the past and warning our ancestors of the man-made disaster to come. Back in 1963, a scientist quietly studying solid state physics suddenly finds surprising patterns in his data, patterns that prove to be signals, Morse Code, no less. What ensues is one man's desperate attempts to figure out what is going on with this signal and whether or not he can convince his colleagues that he is seeing something real. He is frustrated by personalities and the realities of his profession. Time passes and yet it takes a long time to learn that the signals come from the future. He doesn't even know what he is doing, and it isn't until very late that he suspects the broad implications of his actions and those of whoever sent the signal. Jumping back and forth from future to past, Benford could have crafted a fast-moving mystery-adventure. He indulges himself, though, apparently in love with his own voice and his own writing. There are long slow digressions into the lives and careers of his characters. Benford wants to tell us what it is like to be a physicist. What he doesn't realize is that it is a largely tedious career. Meanwhile, his sexual situations, political commentary, and personal interactions all seem shrill and forced. There are some interesting twists to this time-travel story, and the scientific deliberations are actually somewhat interesting, but the book can also be an eye-roll inducing experience, unfortunately more dull than it might have been.

(One isn't quite sure why this novel received a 1980 Nebula award.)

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