Timeline, Michael Crichton

Knopf, 1999, 450 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-44481-5

After a few years as an amateur book reviewer, I have come to approach any new Crichton book with something approaching masochistic glee. He’s a complex author with complex recurring faults. His novels have rich strengths, rich weaknesses and equally rich thematic characteristics. That makes him endearing to any critical reader usually stuck with bland material. Show me a book reviewer who doesn’t want to discuss Crichton’s hypocritical love/hate relationship with technology, and I’ll show you a book reviewer who’s lost all joy in his job.

His latest opus, Timeline, is somewhat of a slight departure for him. In some ways, it’s a return to more explicit science-fiction after his usual thriller / technothriller mode. After a lengthy hundred-page prologue, (in which far too many useless characters are introduced) our protagonists step in a time machine and go back to the fourteenth century in quest of their disappeared mentor. Things go badly with a ridiculous speed and soon, it looks as if our bunch of intrepid explorers is stuck in the late dark ages.

Anyone thinking “gee, that sounds like an excuse for a medieval thriller” is right. By throwing our wholesome American characters in a strange environment, Crichton is not only using one of SF’s standard devices, but also giving more meaning than an environment used without comparative markers. The protagonists stand in for the readers in pointing out the most remarkable differences between the two time periods. And it is a very dangerous time, with enough opportunities for senseless disembowelment to scare off even the most bloodthirsty among us.

It works, like most Crichton novels usually do. The writing style is clean and uncluttered, with enough meaningless techno-babble to convince the majority of readers. The narrative has occasional lengthy moments, but Crichton packs most of the book with armoured battles, nick-of-time escapes, hidden passageways, surprising betrayals and all that good stuff. It’s a good read. Crichton, as usual, loves to show us how smart he is: the book can easily stand-in as a primer on current medieval research.

The problem is that as soon as you start thinking about the scientific wrapper of the book, things stop making sense. Crichton spends a lot of time throwing up sand in the air explaining why it’s not possible to change the past, but most of his arguments essentially go back to wishful thinking. It makes even less sense, of course when the characters actually do end up changing history, even despite the “parallel universe” yadda-yadda.

Experienced SF fans will go nuts pointing out the areas where Crichton clearly means much more than he realizes. He will, for instance, “scan” everyone in a Really Big Computer, but fail to recognize that this way, a backup of the person is created. He will mumble something about relying on other universes to do tricks they can’t comprehend, but fail to recognize that there’s an every bigger story there. He doesn’t follow through his most interesting speculations, that’s simply frustrating. (Take the opening chapter, for instance; the way in which the scientist ends up in the desert is never explained.) That’s when he doesn’t simply set up blindingly obvious setups, during which any halfway attentive reader can feel ahead of the curve.

One thing he does do well is to create a certain atmosphere of dread. His techno-thriller background makes him unusually adept at considering technology like a big box of dangers. This attitude makes his setup all the more interesting, as it’s a virtual certainty that something awful will certainly go wrong. Compare and contrast with the usual happy-go-lucky scientific endeavours in hard-SF for an interesting subject of discussion.

It’s details like this that still compel me to read Crichton’s work. Notwithstanding the occasional stinker (The Lost World), most of his books are undeniably compelling page-turners. But when he screws up, he usually does so in an interesting fashion. He might be one of the most mechanical and hypocritical writer in the best-selling business today (witness his anti-technological, anti-corporate discourse, which feels more and more carefully calculated for popular success than in any way heartfelt), but he’s rarely dull. And that, let me tell you, has a quality of its own when you slog through a dozen novels a month.

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