Top positive review
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Know what you go to
on January 15, 2005
A lot of the reviewers of this book obviously read it not expecting hard SF. Another big chunk did not expect character developments approaching what one would expect from non-SF.
This book is full of details on the science that are highly believable, and as exact as feasible without messing up the plot. That's the point of hard SF, and it succeeds marvellously. For those of the reviewers that expected "mainstream" SF or a non-SF fiction it is a major distraction.
It also spends a lot of time on character development, which is unusual for hard-SF, and many reviewers seem to have expected traditional hard-SF.
On the other hand if you do love hard SF but find most hard SF to have two dimensional characters, this is a book for you.
The book juxtaposes 1963 and 1998. In '63 America had survived the missile crisis, and there appeared to be progress all around - the test ban treaty was being signed, the economy was booming, and the centers of education in California were seeing a massive growth, with a bustling research establishment. Kennedy was pushing the space race. In '63, Gordon (one of the main characters) were assistant professor, had a sexy,sexually liberated girlfriend and was frantically working on a problem that could make his career. It was all good.
The books 1998 is a world in crisis, mostly described via the impacts it has on the main characters - a research team at Cambridge and the rather unsympathetic Mr Peterson - responsible though tough at work, but an chronic womanizer outside of it. The ecology is badly messed up, and we get to see it not just in terms of headlines, as you might in more typical hard SF (i.e. food production is down, fish is dying off, blah. blah.) but in terms of how it changes social structures and the daily lives of these characters.
The two are tied together by the experiments of Gordon and the group at Cambridge and the groups attempts at telling Gordon how to solve the problems they are facing, while attempting to avoid a paradox.
The group succeeds in communicating through time, but does it succeed in fixing the problems of the now they live in? How do you avoid a paradox? What happens if you create a paradox? These ideas and their resolutions are fairly routine in science fiction now, but I have not previously seen anyone handle them so thoroughly and in such a believable way.
Some complain about lack of character development, but I would claim that anyone who does so does it because they would not normally read hard SF. Some complain about too much character development because they are looking exactly for the hard SF. It's perhaps an awkward combination.
I too found myself wanting to skip ahead at various points, but not because I found parts boring, but because the development of the problem kept me in a lot of suspense. But I'm glad I didn't skip ahead - the "filler" material some have complained about was vital to the feel of this book.
It was "filler" material that provided the tie in with the Kennedy assassination that provide answers to several major questions of the book. It was filler material that demonstrated the mood of the respective time periods and give you the basis for judging the time after the "turning point". "Filler material" expanding on the characters explained much of their motivations for acting the way they did instead of always doing what might have been the logical way to behave for a typical cardboard scientist in typical hard SF.
And the end is stunning in terms of the way it describes time. Only one other time have I had a similar reaction to the end of an SF book, and that was with Arthur C. Clarkes "The City And the Stars" (read it!) which sent chills down my spine (I don't think any piece of fiction have ever done that with me before) for it's haunting image of how limited our view of time is by our viewpoint and our physical existence.