Timescape, Ilium

Pippin of the day: a soldier of Gondor

I’ve been reading mostly short fiction lately, but I got around to a couple of novels. Timescape by Gregory Benford seemed like a good idea at the time—a story about scientists from two different eras. In 1962, a Jewish researcher deals with strange perturbations in his experimental data while trying to understand his native Californian girlfriend. In 1998 (the book was written in 1980) a team of British physicists tries to extract grant money from a world government more concerned about imminent environmental collapse than hypothetical tachyons.

Except for the killer plankton, that’s about the sum total of the science in Timescape. The rest of the novel alternates between Our Hippie Hero’s relationship problems and the sexual escapades of a future Brit bureaucrat. In fact, the main pastime of scientists and their (stay-at-home) wives in 1998 seems to be adultery. The one female scientist I recall was a lesbian. Toss in the Armageddon by Plankton and the predictive power of Timescape approaches zero—not very reassuring in a time-travel novel (of sorts). I’m not sure whether this is a mainstream novel dressed up with tachyons, or a sci-fi novella with 300 pages of characterization tacked on. Either way, you get the picture.

Dan Simmons’ Ilium was the only Hugo nominee I hadn’t read, and now I’ve remedied the situation. Although Nicholas Whyte and Locus rated it first, I was disappointed by the lack of an ending. Paladin of Souls is also part of a series, but a freestanding part. I see now why it won over this book. Ilium left me hanging at the foot of Mt. Olympus.

It was a wild ride, though. Ilium follows the adventures of three sets of characters: several intelligent robots from Jupiter’s moons, a scholar resurrected by the Greek gods to check the progress of the Trojan war against the account in the Iliad, and a group of young eloi—useless, decadent humans—living on Earth. The robots eventually join up with a set of humans, but the other two plots never come together. It’s like reading two entirely separate novels shuffled together into one 575 page volume, and only one of them has anything like an ending.

Here’s another review along the same lines. It’s a fun read and hard to put down, but I wouldn’t recommend starting Ilium until you have your hands on the sequel.

[Update:] I forgot to mention my big nitpick of Ilium. The following are facts related to reproduction on the future Earth:

  1. A lecherous main character is concerned that his cousin may not want to sleep with him because of antiquated incest taboos.
  2. Each woman can reproduce only once.
  3. There is no incest between brothers and sisters because no one has brothers or sisters.
  4. There may be incest between fathers and daughters because no one knows who their father is. They do know their mothers.
  5. The natives believe their population is (artificially) fixed at one million people, though later in the novel this estimate is revised.
  6. Things have been this way for a long time now—to the characters, it seems that they’ve always been this way.

These facts contradict each other in several ways. The two characters cannot be full cousins if no one has any siblings. They could be half-siblings on the father’s side or the half-cousin descendants of such half-siblings, but they would not know it because paternity is not tracked.

Also, the population cannot be fixed at any number, either the original 1,000,000 or the later estimate, because the rate of reproduction (one child per woman) is far below the replacement rate. The number of fertile women would be halved in every generation. That the population is in geometric decline fits the plot of the novel, but the characters don’t seem to realize it. They may be clueless eloi, but that kind of population loss would be hard to miss after several generations.

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