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.

The Stars My Destination

Gully Foyle is the twenty-sixth century’s definition of average. He has no particular talents, skills or strengths, so gets an unremarkable job on an unremarkable starship, which kickstarts a remarkable adventure. As the novel begins, Foyle is the sole survivor of the starship Nomad, floating in what remains of its wreck and only donning a spacesuit to leave his sealable air pocket to fetch more oxygen canisters. With his supply running low, Foyle prepares for death, but out of the abyss comes another ship, the Vorga. Foyle starts to prepare for salvation instead. Then the Vorga goes away again.

But Foyle survives, and manages to make it back to civilisation. He’s gone slightly mad in the process, and the rest of his story could be summed up by the suggestion: don’t get mad, get even. One by one Foyle tracks down the crewmembers of the Vorga to find out who ordered the ship to turn away instead of rescuing him, and wreaking a slice of vengeance on each one as he encounters them.

Foyle is a despicable character, detestable in every way, and not in the slightest bit charismatic with it. And so is pretty much every other character in the novel. They’re all self-serving backstabbing bastards of one shade or another, so one develops a certain fondness for Foyle as he knocks their heads together. The book reminded me a bit of some of Iain M Banks’ Culture novels in that regard.

At other times it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut. The primary mode of non-interstellar travel in Alfred Bester’s imagined future is not cars or planes but the practice of ‘jaunting’ – people simply will themselves from place to place. Foyle also encounters a religious cult that has developed around science, so that scientific processes have become rituals, and scientific terminology has been turned into chants (such as ‘sufficient quantities’ becoming ‘Suff quant!’). The cult has divorced the words and actions from all meaning, and is as satirical a comment on the modern world as the book gets. Very Douglas Adams.

I’ve also been reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls on the side, but 70 pages in, Robert Jordan’s still hanging round the cave with the old republicans, the gypsies and the girl he fancies, and nobody seems particularly bothered about blowing up any bridges any more. A full review might follow, if the thing doesn’t lose me entirely before I get far enough to write one.