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

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

The Real-Town Murders (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Of all the contemporary science fiction writers, Adam Roberts can most be relied on to deliver a book that combines an engaging story with extensions of current science and technology that really makes you think - and The Real-Town Murders does this perfectly.

Set in the south east of England, a few decades in the future, this book delivers a trio of delights. The main character, Alma, is faced with constant time pressure as she faces physical and mental challenges (including a lovely homage to North-by-Northwest), there is an apparently impossible locked room mystery and there is fascinating speculation about the impact three technologies - AI, nanotechnology and virtual reality - may have on human life and politics.

Roberts' inventiveness comes through time after time - for example, Alma's partner is locked into a genetically engineered nightmare where she suffers a different medical emergency every four hours which only Alma can fix. It's just a shame, in a way, that Marg…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…