Skip to main content

Timeswitch (SF) - John Gribbin *****

This is one of the best science fiction books I've read in ages - it could have been written for me, combining as it does hard science, an element of historical fiction and some mind-boggling twists. It even nearly achieves something that had seemed impossible.

John Gribbin is one of the UK's top writers of popular science books, but he proves here that he can put his hand to fiction writing with masterful ease. In Timeswitch, a device is discovered under Stonehenge that provides a wormhole style portal into the past. But it can only achieve jumps in units of 300 years, and the further back you go, the less time you have in the place you visit before you are dragged back to the present. The book's present is an alternative world, where scientific discoveries were made much earlier than in our reality (Galileo comes up with special relativity, for instance), as a result of which we were hit by global warming much earlier and the present is almost uninhabitable. The scientists working on the portal try to use it to change the past and save the environment with fascinating consequences.

There were so many things I liked here. It was well written and kept me pushing on to discover more. The way Gribbin handles the possibility that changing the past might result in different futures and hence different versions of the time travellers is brilliant - reminiscent of the multi-layered delights of one of my favourite films, Inception (this would make a great movie or TV series). The historical periods are well conceived and I was impressed with way the author plays with the different people in the past to construct a new history of science.

That's where the 'nearly achieves something that had seemed impossible' comes in. I have always thought that it should be possible to write a good piece of fiction that also gets across some real science in an effective way. This is by far the best book I've ever seen for doing this - with the only problem that the terminology used is not the ones we use, and the historical context, so important in popular science, is here all fictional.

However, this doesn't stop the book being a superb piece of science fiction (with historical fiction touches). And even when you think you can see what's coming, there's a clever twist that changes things entirely. If I have any complaint it's only that I suspect in a real alternative history like this far fewer of the familiar names would crop up in science, because modern physics has got so mathematical that most of great physicists in history simply couldn't handle it. I'm thinking particularly of Cavendish, who is given an important place in developing advanced physics, but as far as I'm aware had no mathematical ability. It's a minor niggle that wouldn't bother anyone who wasn't a popular science or history of science nerd.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…