I just finished reading Timescape by Gregory Benford and Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the two books strike me as a perfect set for a meditation on time travel. I doubt Henry David Thoreau ever thought about time travel, but any writer that produces a classic book is communicating across time, sending messages centuries into the future. Imagine if Thoreau had some kind of magical book and we could send messages back to him sitting in his little shack by Walden Pond. What would you tell him about life in the future and reading his book? Timescape by Gregory Benford is about sending messages backwards in time, allowing the future to talk to the past. Unfortunately, Benford tries to stick closely to a theoretical idea in physics which has limited application. His story is timid by science fictional standards, but wonderfully ambitious by defying the traditions of the genre.
I often want to communicate with the past. I’m currently reading The Scarlet Letter and figure it would be great fun to show the Puritans an hour of MTV. On the surface that sounds cruel, but I keep thinking if we could talk across the ages we’d realize new philosophical dimensions. Of course we know about the tyrannical nature of religious societies just by watching the nightly news, but it helps to remember that Americans once wore funny religious clothes and treated women like Islamic fundamentalists. The real test would be to have a time traveler show up today and let us know about the future and how our beliefs and actions are embarrassing to them. Are the liberated women on MTV a step forward in women’s expression as individuals or are they freed women to act out men’s fantasies?
The eight hundred pound gorilla in this essay is global warming. Will the people of the future all lie in the beds at night wishing they could talk to us? Benford’s story written in the 1970s and published in 1980 isn’t about global warming but another ecological catastrophe caused by the people of the 1950s and 1960s but which kills the people of 1998. Yes, his future is now our past but that doesn’t make the book dated. Timescape is #41 on The Classics of Science Fiction list – but it deserves to be higher. The idea of sending messages to the past is just as original as any of H. G. Wells’ great primal science fictional ideas.
If you read the reader reviews on Amazon you will find most readers giving Timescape five stars but many giving it one star. It’s a polarizing science fiction novel because it’s not a gee-whiz action story, but a quiet story about science and scientists. Critics loved it but many fans didn’t. I assume most adolescent readers would prefer a story about time travelers going back to hunt dinosaurs rather than read about a clever plot based on a theoretical sub-atomic particle called the tachyon. I can also infer that most page turning readers don’t want to be burden by bad tidings from the future.
In Timescape a few 1998 people desperately try to get a message to a few scientists in 1963 hoping to save their world. If the people of 1963 had listened to Thoreau message from 1854 the people in 1998 might not have ever needed to send a message backwards in time. Walden is a timeless essay about paying attention to details and questioning the status quo. Thoreau might be considered America’s original hippie, but he was a brilliant thinker, as was his friend Nathan Hawthorne who peered with nineteenth century eyes into the seventeenth century with A Scarlett Letter. There are still puritanical threads woven into our twenty-first century philosophy. The lessons of history have always been one way – think how dynamically philosophic history would be if we could tune in the future with tachyon radios.
I’m not shunning the Puritans when I mention them, they may have valid messages to send us too, points that we’re missing, and yes we’re still receiving their messages, for example, the current fad of Purity Balls. The key is to study Thoreau and learn to discern the ecology of our thoughts like he studied the ecology of Walden Pond. Are the Puritans four centuries away, or merely a few thousand miles? Scattered across this earth are people living in situations that mirror all the times of history. Every society might represent a different expression of innate programming to comprehend right and wrong – it may even be hardwired in our genes as Moral Minds suggests. Classic books may be classic because they show characters at the cutting edge of ethical dramas.
Global warming will be the ethical issue of our times. To overcome this obstacle we will all have to live life with the spiritual observational skills of Henry David Thoreau. Science fictional books like Timescape illustrates that every casual decision we make today affects the people of tomorrow. The emotional dynamics of how we judge our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth is portrayed in The Scarlet Letter. For years I have contemplated why some books become classics and others don’t. I’m never sure how to define a classic, but I know if you are reading books that don’t make you think, that you can’t interconnect with the communications across time, then more than likely you are only reading for escapism and that book isn’t a classic.