The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 2007, 275 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-441-01616-7

Joe Haldeman may be an acknowledged master of Science Fiction, but his work has been quite uneven over the past decade an a half. This, of course, is a polite way of saying that he’s capable of the worst (Forever Free), the dull (Forever Peace), the competent (Camouflage) and the intriguing (The Coming) without warning. One never quite knows what to expect from a Haldeman novel, largely because he rarely attempts sequels or series, but also because his track record so far spans the entire range of critical opinions.

So to say that The Accidental Time Machine is a surprise isn’t entirely surprising. The title is accurate, given how it describes the adventures of a young disaffected MIT student stuck with a sophisticated custom-made lab device that surprisingly ends up sending itself forward in time. As Matt Fuller discovers, this machines works according to precise rules: Every time he activates it, the machine sends itself in the future for a duration twelve times that of the last jump. From micro-second jumps, Matt activates the machine to jumps days, weeks, months and then years in the future. Then things get interesting.

The most obvious attraction of The Accidental Time Machine is the time travel element itself. As Matt jumps from era to era, the world changes, slightly at first, then more radically as the jumps span decades and centuries. Many readers loved it when the protagonists of Haldeman’s The Forever War came back home from decade-long missions only to find utterly transformed societies, and this novel occasionally offers the same kind of conceptual kick. Matt goes through theocracies, post-scarcity economies and strange far-future adventures, and the result is a satisfying grab-bag of speculations, none of them radically new, but all intriguing to some degree or another.

But the real star of the book, for once, aren’t the ideas as much as the characters experiencing it. Matt is our anchor through the novel: recently single, generally apathetic, troubled by job problems, Matt is the ideal character to send through progressively farther futures. He’s both smart enough and isolated enough to look forward to the next jump. He learns much during his trip, including how to woo a comely young woman he accidentally picks up during his jumps. The conclusion, which would have been a nightmare from certain perspectives, ends up being a true charmer in great part because our characters are so happy through it all.

It’s no accident if “charm” ends up being The Accidental Time Machine‘s single most distinctive trait. It’s a short book in an age of bloated monstrosities, and it flows without a hitch. Haldeman’s prose is classic stripped-down elegance, and there’s no reason to stop reading. This is partly a throwback to an earlier kind of SF, but not necessarily a less-successful piece of work. Even with a subject so familiar as time travel, Haldeman finds a few clever wrinkles and wisely doesn’t neglect his characters. While The Accidental Time Machine may not create the kind of gob-smacked admiration as more ambitious contemporary works of SF, it’s got most other contenders beaten down in sheer likability. This is mid-list SF as it should be: Accessible, interesting, short and warm. Readers who have been let down by some of Haldeman’s latest few books ought to be pleased by this one.

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