Have you ever bombed a test? Tripped in front of your crush? Blurted something stupid out at work? Yeah, we thought so. Us, too—and every time we epically blunder, we totally fantasize about being able to travel back in time for a do-over.
But bad outfits, uncontrollable farts, and other embarrassing moments aside, what if we could go back in time and fix the planet? Or if the planet's not your bag, how about save a president from assassination? The characters in Timescape, Gregory Benford's beast of a sci-fi book, attempt to do the former, and accidentally do the latter. In Timescape, Jackie O. stays Jackie K. because JFK doesn't die, all because some scientists in 1998 try to communicate with some scientists in 1962, all in the name of saving the planet from certain ecological doom.
Benford's novel immediately became a darling for the literary mainstream and science fiction genres alike when it was published in 1980. Sci-fi fans admire Benford's realistic portrayal of the work scientists undergo to make their life-changing discoveries, both in the lab and on the theoretical front. Literature fans appreciate how Benford complicates the pursuit of scientific truth with characters who struggle with human drama such as commitment, family obligations, and dinner parties. Lots and lots of dinner parties.
Fitting its broad appeal, Timescape won the 1980 British Science Fiction Award and the 1981 Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards. And later, it went on to be added to several best of science fiction lists, including famed editor David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. People just can't seem to get over this book.
While no movie has been made, and Benford hasn't written a sequel, the novel stands just fine by itself, continuing to be a shining example of a time travel story done right. Seriously—when we read this book, it didn't humiliate itself even once.
Anyone who has done their time in a high school knows this scenario: You're in physics class, finally freestyling on that whole second law of thermodynamics jazz, when suddenly the bell rings, and you're whisked away to English class. Time to put those equations down; you've got to figure out just how a bildungsroman and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are related.
If you only went by school rules, you'd think that subjects like politics, science, and literature never influence each other. If you prefer beakers to bylaws, then get a master's in chemistry, and you'll never have to consider another Supreme Court case for all of your days. Likewise, study literary theory and you can finally rescue all those poor letters from their equation prisons and return them to books from whence they came.
But as you've probably figured out, life doesn't work out quite so neatly. Instead, the different disciplines we study in school tend to muddle and mix together pretty much the moment we leave the classroom. Enter Timescape.
Absent are the bug-eyed monsters and laser-gun toting scientists of so many other sci-fi experiences, and in their place, we have data and laboratories and cups of stale coffee. And along with these ordinary scientists and their ordinary accessories come real-world problems. Think: politics, communication, and personal relationships. It's like every part of high school rolled into one. So as much as this book is about science and sci-fi scenarios, it's also about navigating the hot mess that is life—a.k.a. when everything we study in school comes together.
In other words, as much as Timescape has plenty for sci-fi nerds to geek out over, it's also a book for anyone who ever plans on leaving the classroom. And last we checked, that's literally everyone.
No Tachyons Necessary
Gregory Benford's digital home provides all sorts of information on the author, Timescape and a bunch of his other books. The best part: You don't need any fancy science fiction gadgets to access it, unless, of course, you count the Internet as sci-fi. Which it kind of is.
Great Novel; Goodreads
The Goodreads page for Timescape. Stop by to read users' thoughts on the story, leave your own ideas, and add it to your shelf to show everyone that you conquered this beast of a book.
So. Much. Information.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database has everything you could ever want to know about Timescape. Curious about what awards the novel's won? They can tell you. Want to know how many different versions exist? They know. Desperate for the title in French? Look no further, and learn the German and Italian ones while you're there.
Challenger presents a transcript of Benford's class reunion speech at UC San Diego in 1985. It even comes with James Benford's introduction, complete with a family-styled ribbing.
Science Fiction Studies + Timescape = Enlightening
Writing for Science Fiction Studies, Benford discusses the role real science played in his developing Timescape's tachyon-rich plot.
Ice Must Suffice
In this blog post, Benford muses over cosmology, theology, physics, science fiction, and the end of the entire universe. He might not mention Timescape directly, but there are some interesting ideas we can't help but feel connect to a novel about humanity's struggle against the inevitable. Depressingly interesting stuff here.
Science Is the Chewy Center
John Foyster interviews Benford about the role science plays in hard science fiction.
About SF's Tinkering with History
AboutSF discusses the role alternative timelines have played in science fiction. Care to guess what novel gets brought into the mix?
Andy's Anachronism Review
Andy fills a unique niche: His website explores only the themes of time travel and alternate universes in literature. It was only a matter of time before Timescape and he crossed paths.
Live Long and Prosper
Benford discusses research that has led to a longer, more prosperous lifespan for fruit flies. It might help people down the road, too.
Hail the Google
The great overlord of our modern era, Google, invites Benford and Larry Niven to discuss their book Bowl of Heaven. It isn't Timescape, but you might notice some thematic connective tissue between this discussion and Benford's Nebula winner.
Tell Me, Doctor, Where Are We Going This Time
Prisoners of Gravity was a Canadian public broadcasting show from the 1990s that discussed topics related to speculative fiction. Think Mystery Science Theater 3000 molecularly combined with a literature course, and you've got the gist. In this episode, Commander Rick discusses time travel with some of science fiction's luminaries, including Benford. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
For the Long Haul
Pete Bradbury narrates all four hundred plus pages of Timescape for fifteen hours and thirty-nine minutes of easy reading. Well, easy for the listener, at least.
Simply Audiobooks allows you to rent the audiobook of Timescape if you're not one for commitment.
Gregory Benford Then
You know his name; now get to know his face. Here's a picture of the one, the only—in this universal reality at least—Gregory Benford.
Benford on the Great Wall of China
Why did we include this authorial photo? Because on Wednesdays we wear pink.
The first-edition cover of Timescape in its chaotic glory.
Two Earths communicate with each other for this cover.
This fan art superimposes the Earth of 1968 and 1998 into a wonderful homage to Benford's novel.