Timeline, by Michael Crichton

timeline-by-michael-crichton cover imageGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: threestars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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Time travel has been a popular genre subject ever since Mark Twain sent his Yankee back to the Court of King Arthur in 1889. So perhaps it’s fitting that for his latest novel, Michael Crichton, the brains behind Jurassic Park (which focused on time travel of a different kind: bringing dinosaurs into our present), should also take his characters back to an age of knights in shining armor. After no-brainer movies like Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Timecop, Crichton brings us neatly full circle with a story that’s bound to make a good film itself one day.

In the Arizona desert a couple of tourists on a road trip come across a man wandering around, lost and confused. There’s no sign of his own car, and he appears to be wearing old-fashioned robes… these and a pair of Nike trainers. He’s also cold to the touch, despite baking in the desert sun for goodness knows how long, so they take him to the nearest hospital straight away. The doctors there are puzzled by his condition, especially after they give him a scan and find that his bones are out of alignment. Not only that, he’s carrying about his person a detailed plan of a medieval monastery that hasn’t existed for centuries.

Cut to the Dordogne project, where a group of history students, under the tutelage of one Professor Edward Johnston, are restoring the sites of Castelgard and La Roque – funded by a mega-rich company called ITC (International Technology Corporation). For the most part they’ve been left alone to do their job, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when ITC’s founder, Robert Doniger, asks to see the professor urgently. But that’s as nothing compared to the shock the team get when they uncover a note on parchment dating back to 1357 saying ‘Help Me’. A note that appears to be in the professor’s own handwriting.

Now they’re the ones travelling to ITC’s headquarters, on a desperate mission to save their mentor. Because the professor is trapped in the past, trapped in France in the middle ages to be exact. And the only way to get to him is to send them back the same way. Back to a time they’re all familiar with (or so they think); a time they’ve only ever dreamed about. A time full of dangers they can’t possibly begin to imagine.

Crichton is an author who likes to keep his finger on the pulse, and in Timeline you’ll find lots of stuff about quantum computers and the concept of ‘consuming’ the past as we might consume TV or films – a very dangerous thing when you’re dealing with history as a fact. However, as clever as he is, Crichton has some very peculiar notions about time travel. For a start we’re meant to accept that his characters get back into our past by visiting an alternative universe (ala the multiverse theory) – they cease to exist in this reality and then appear in the alternative one in the year 1357. So how was the professor able to leave a message for his students to find centuries in the future when they didn’t even exist in the same universe? He also puts forward the notion that time paradoxes never occur, because anything you do in the past (which is not really the past, but an alternative universe; still with me?) will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on the present. This allows his leads to chop their way through countless knights and not worry about whether they’re offing some key figure who’s integral to the history of humanity, but it’s quite clearly twaddle and completely goes against the fundamental principal of a time-line.

If you can get past such inconsistencies, then the book will provide you with a pretty decent adventure. Once the team is catapulted back it’s fast-paced action all the way, with Crichton supplying cliffhanger after cliffhanger (at one point literally) while the clock ticks down at the start of each chapter: the group only have 37 hours before they have to return. Although you do get the feeling he’s seen one too many episodes of Ivanhoe or Robin Hood – “Sir Guy! Look you here! They are hiding in the tree, my Lord.” – the author’s heart is in the right place, and he even finds time to shatter one or two illusions about the past being dirty, or that damsels were always in distress (indeed, sometimes it’s the men who need rescuing from the maidens!).

As I said above, Timeline will make a superb film one day. In fact it’ll probably make a better film than it does a book (the exact opposite of Crichton’s Sphere) because you’ll have less of a chance to think about the lack of character motivation and so on – you’ll be too busy marveling at all the scenery or watching the swashbuckling fight sequences. But it’s still worth a read, if you can spare the time.

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