Eleven Eleven

Will Franklin and Axel Meyer may be on opposing sides in the First World War, but they have a lot in common, most notably the fact that they are actually too young to have enlisted. Will is separated from his squad when a sniper in a forest starts to pick them off. Meanwhile Axel is separated from his platoon after the village where they are based is attacked from two directions. Both boys end up in the same shell crater, along with a downed American airman only a few years older than they are. On any other day they would have to try and kill each other, but this is 11th November 1918.

Paul Dowswell chooses the most pointless half-day of fighting in the entirety of the First World War to show up just how pointless much of the rest of it was too. Even though their leaders have already signed an armistice, the men in the trenches must continue to shoot, bomb and gas the enemy until the message can be confirmed to have spread the length of the Western Front at 11am. The pointlessness of it all is best summed up when the men (and boys) in the forest discover the remains of a British position abandoned four years previously. After all that carnage, the Allies have simply managed to get back to where they were at the start.

Aimed at early teens, the book unsurprisingly offers a more sanitised version of the First World War than All Quiet on the Western Front. On the one hand there’s much to be said for not writing ghoulish Somme porn. But at the same time Dowswell falls into a common trap. Whilst Erich Maria Remarque could get away with writing about soldiers sitting around just talking rather than fighting for much of his semi-autobiographical novel, the demands of drama and his thriller-writing sensibilities have led Dowswell to make the war seem at times rather exciting. This doesn’t distract from his message in the end. But sometimes the message isn’t there at all.

It’s shorter than the other books of his I’ve read. Perhaps this time they cut out his seemingly stock-in-trade peeing scene! The extract from Auslander included at the end makes mention of full bladders, so it’ll be back to business as usual when I get round to reading that one, I imagine.

Timescape

Timescape is a novel about two worlds staring down the apocalypse – both of them ours. In 1998 (which was still 20 years in the future when Gregory Benford wrote the book), the world is in full-on ecological and social collapse. Fertilisers have reached sufficient levels in the oceans to cause an explosive bloom in a type of algae that leeches all nutrients from the water. As the seas die, the same chemicals become present in rain, and slowly the effect is replicated on land, destroying crops, and leading livestock to starve.

With food supplies dwindling, social order collapsing and power outages becoming the norm, a group of physicists struggle to convince a bankrupt government more worried about losing control that the future is unsalvageable, and that the solution to their nightmare lies in the past. These physicists have found a way to generate and control bursts of tachyon emissions. Tachyon particles travel faster than the speed of light, and can therefore theoretically reach their target before they even leave their source. Before the emergency generators run out of juice, the physicists send a warning into the ether, explaining how the catastrophe was caused. Able only to control the duration of the tachyon emissions, they encode their message into combinations of long and short bursts.

In October 1962, as American and Soviet planes stand waiting on airstrips to carry their nuclear cargoes to each other’s cities, a young scientist studying magnetic resonance begins to detect unexplainable levels of interference. Almost impossibly, the interference appears to look like dots and dashes. Even less likely, assuming the dots and dashes are Morse code, when translated they make perfect sense.

This is hard, realistic science fiction. Bar a silly but inconsequential reference that should have been edited out of the middle of the novel, everything here is coldly plausible, from the slow and unspectacular death of the planet to the conservative orthodoxy of a scientific establishment that can’t think outside the box, sometimes for no other reason than personal vanity. Benford squeezes in some unpatronising explanations (with the physicists’ unscientific wives and girlfriends asking all the necessary questions), but the more hardcore of the theoretical physics still went over my head. After all, the main thrust of the plot is not how to send the message, but how to avoid the ‘grandfather paradox’ – that if the physicists in 1998 succeed in warning the world in 1962, the circumstances that led them to send the message in the first place will not transpire.