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.