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Michael Cricthon's TIMELINE: Adventures in Time and Space.
By Denise Dumars
February 09, 2000
Time travel is--all puns aside--a time-tested motif in science fiction. In Michael Crichton's latest novel, TIMELINE, we're not talking dinosaurs here. We're talking the Middle Ages, and we're talking time travel of a sort we've never heard of before.
The novel begins with the strange death of a man found wandering in the desert. Gradually we learn that he was the unintentional victim of a top-secret scientific experiment in time travel. A Bill Gates-like uber-nerd named Robert Doniger is responsible; his ITC corporation has been experimenting with methods of sending persons through time by means of quantum mechanics.
Crichton does an excellent job of setting up the physics of how time travel might come about. He explains it in terms of space/time, and the readers learn more about quantum foam and the multiverse than they ever wanted to know. The method of sending a person through time is, unfortunately, likened to sending a fax, and so the image of persons being faxed back into history is perhaps an unfortunate one.
Three historians are sent back in time to rescue a professor who was sent back earlier. All of this involves a lab and Doniger's dour female assistant--shades of that old TV show THE TIME TUNNEL. Our time travelers are a brilliant and buff Belgian named Andre who is in love with the Middle Ages; a rock-climbing young woman named Kate who finds her athletic skills to be lifesaving when escaping from medieval castles; and a rather un-physically fit student named Chris, who is in love with Kate.
Our intrepid trio head back into the past accompanied by armed guards--who are immediately killed by knights. This foreshadows upcoming events; the reader soon sees that all is not as it appears to be. Crichton's novel is not at its best when it's giving us a revisionist view of the 14th century. Despite his research--which apparently led him to believe that this era was far more hygienic than we realize--the brutality and ignorance of the era come through over his protestations that the 'Dark Ages' never existed. Several times the novel degenerates into Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckling, which may be thrilling to some readers and boring to others.
Let's step back and do a bit of time traveling on our own for a moment. In 1992 a novel called THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, by Connie Willis, was published. This much-lauded science fiction novel took place in the Middle Ages, where a young history student was sent back to the year 1320, where she meets a priest named Father Roche. She is in danger of being stuck there and so someone has to go back to rescue her. The novel was at its best when it described the people and events of the Middle Ages.
In TIMELINE, history students are sent back to the year 1357 to a town called La Roque to rescue a professor. They are in danger of being stuck there. Hmmm.
Crichton gives a copious bibliography at the back of his book--all nonfiction, primarily history but also some science texts. If he had also included THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, I would have felt better about TIMELINE. As it is, it certainly seems as if the former influenced the latter, unless we're to believe that quantum foam is responsible for the coincidences in plot points, times, and places, which for all this reviewer knows about physics may absolutely be the case.
The people we meet in the past are, unlike the complex characters in THE DOOMSDAY BOOK's 14th century, mere cardboard. I cried in THE DOOMSDAY BOOK when Father Roche died. In TIMELINE, there's no one in the middle ages who is 3-D enough to cry about.
Still, Crichton manages an effective thriller on many levels. If nothing more exciting than a lop-sided jousting match is happening in the past, we can cut to the present where all sorts of technical glitches--including some truly horrific mistakes reminiscent of THE FLY or that space/time error episode of THE X FILES--are going on. The historians are always in danger of being stuck in the past. Doniger is far more amoral than anyone he could have been based on in real life, and so at least his story is resolved to good effect in the end.
Yet for all its flaws--including the chapters that begin with the typed version of the infamous 'red digital readout' that tells us time is running out--the book is compulsively readable. As the characters race for time to rescue the professor and try not to get killed in the meantime, another plot twist is introduced: another person previously sent into the past is still there, and working against the historians and their professor. Who he is and why he is doing what he's doing eventually come out and add a special kind of threat to what the time travelers are already facing.
And if you're a fan of old Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks movies, you can get your swash buckled, too.