Gregory Benford’s novel deals with the interaction of two periods, the end of the millennium and the year 1963. By 1998, ecological catastrophes such as marine algae blooms have reached such terrifying dimensions that a group of British scientists attempts, with the help of faster-than-light tachyons, to send a message back in time in order to change the course of history. The recipient is Gordon Bernstein, a physics professor at the University of California, La Jolla, in 1963.
The Cambridge group of the year 1998 is acting under extremely unfavorable conditions, as a general economic slump and the World Council’s focus on managing more immediate crises have dried up funding for this type of research. The novel discusses in detail the political and academic maneuverings necessary to keep the project viable. Personalities clash, as scientists such as John Renfrew have to deal with crafty World Council administrators such as Ian Peterson. Both the scientists and the bureaucrats soon realize that establishing contact with the past might be humanity’s last chance for survival, as starvation is killing untold millions and the marine diatom bloom threatens to destroy the global food chain.
The 1960’s California plot deals with the academic and personal problems of Bernstein, a New York Jew who is experiencing difficulty in adapting to the California lifestyle. His theories concerning strange messages hidden in the results of the atomic resonance experiment he is conducting gradually alienate him from the relatively conservative senior professors in his department. When a simplified version of Bernstein’s discoveries is presented on television, he becomes the focal point of numerous pseudo-scientific cranks and loses almost all credibility among most of his colleagues. A message concerning pesticides as the cause of the future diatom bloom is experimentally verified by a biologist, and Bernstein persists in tracking the elusive resonance phenomenon.
The ending of the novel is highly ironic. When every attempt to change the past seems to have failed, a strange coincidence occurs. On November 22, 1963, a high school student is sent to the Dallas School Book Depository to get several copies of a magazine containing an article about Bernstein’s controversial theories. He surprises Lee Harvey Oswald in the act of shooting at President John F. Kennedy and tackles him, thus deflecting the crucial shot. Kennedy survives the assassination attempt, and history takes an entirely different, and better, course.