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Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia
Gregory Benford
Avon Bard Books, 225 pages

Art: Tom Canty
Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia
Gregory Benford
Gregory Benford is a physicist and astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of a series of hard SF novels, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1978) and following quickly with works such as Timescape (1980) and the popular Galactic Centre series, including Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989) and Furious Gulf (1994). A recent work is Cosm.

Gregory Benford Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Against Infinity
SF Site Review: Artifact
SF Site Review: Cosm
SF Site Review: Foundation's Fear

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

Gregory Benford is a well-known science fiction author, but this non-fiction work springs from Benford's other life as a physicist and from his involvement with science practice. Deep Time is not exactly popular science, though it incorporates thumbnail sketches of various fields. Rather, it is the testimony of a scientist who has brought a science fictional bent to several quite different endeavours and who has determined one thing they had in common: Deep Time.

What is deep time? One could describe it as the object of a viewpoint that is increasingly needed by our civilization as it attempts to act over longer and longer time spans.

In this book, Benford explores several ways in which we are attempting to make a lasting mark on the Universe, not always intentionally. And he points out that making things that last is a way of communicating effectively through time. What will we say to our descendants? What are we already saying to them?

First, Benford tells the tale of a task force in charge of creating an effective marker for a US radioactive waste site, one that would last 10,000 years! He was a part of the effort and writes a fascinating account of the various scenarios and solutions they examined. The discussion of their search for an anti-monument, one that would frighten and repel future visitors, is a thought-provoking treat.

The next section also features Benford's involvement, this time in the effort to create a diamond disk to be sent to Titan with the Cassini mission. This is not a success story, but Benford's account of his collaboration with Jon Lomberg and a space scientist is a good introduction to the problem of crafting messages meant to last. Unlike the waste site marker, the Cassini disk had to convey a message not only to future humans but to possible aliens. Doomed by disagreement among the collaborators, the Cassini disk never flew, showing how difficult it can be to tackle deep time perspectives.

The third essay involves Benford's proposal to create a last gasp, representative library of the lifeforms threatened by extinction and habitat destruction here on Earth. The sampling technique he defends has proven controversial, but he points out how the disappearance of so many species on our watch, so to speak, is already sending out a message that will resonate, loud and clear, for millennia to come.

The book ends with a general discussion of an even clearer message: the whole of Earth, as we will leave it to our descendants. Benford emphasizes that human meddling has already shaped the world we live in. For millennia now, hunting, agriculture, and the use of fire by humans have remodeled the landscape and rewritten the book of nature. However, the legacy of industrialization may be even more far-reaching. Benford focuses mostly on the greenhouse effect, acknowledging the complexity of the phenomenon and the two-edged nature of many contributing mechanisms. Some solutions are obvious, like planting more trees, but others are more controversial, when they involve so-called tinkering with Mother Nature. Yet, survival may dictate that we develop a deep time view appropriate to an active stewardship of the planet.

The book ends with a something of a plea, both for this kind of improper science and for the deep time viewpoint itself.

Though Benford attempts to link these four sections through the common theme of deep time, the result remains somewhat disjointed. The first part of the book deals with concrete projects, while the second part is more of a call to arms. Nevertheless, while it may not be a weighty tome, I believe it is an important one and I hope that it will find readers willing to consider Benford's arguments.

Copyright © 1999 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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