Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review - Michael Cricton's Timeline

Timeline by Michael Crichton
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: November 16th, 1999
Format: Hardcover, 444 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Robert Doniger and his company ITC make components for MRI machines. Or at least that's what everyone thinks. ITC though has a vast portfolio of different investments, one of them is an archaeological site in the south of France on the Dordogne River. The site is lead by Professor Edward Johnston and his team; André Marek, a man who wishes he lived in the period he studies, Chris Hughes, who is like a son to Johnston and specializes in studying mills, Kate Erickson, an architect student who has transferred to the study of history, and David Stern, their resident geek. The site is thrown into uproar when a representative from ITC comes to do the yearly inspection of the site and makes references to things that the researchers themselves don't even know about. Johnston demands an audience with Doniger and returns with the representative to New Mexico.

Days go by and Professor Johnston isn't in communication with his team when in the ruins of the monastery they find a note from him saying that he is in 1357 and needs help. Everyone thinks it's a joke until all the tests prove that it is legit. Marek contacts ITC to question them about this development and he is told to pack his bags and pick three other team members, they are to be on a plane to New Mexico in the next hour. With Chris, Kate, and David all onboard, they are let into the big secret that ITC has been carefully guarding. ITC has developed time travel, of a sort. Really it's traveling to different times in parallel dimensions, but that is how they knew so much about the site in southern France, they'd been there when the castles weren't ruins; and due to a little accident, Professor Johnston is there now and has no way back. ITC thought it prudent to send back the only people who know the site and know what the Professor would be doing, aka his team. ITC convinces them to go on this rescue mission, but they cleverly omit the dangers and risks that the team will face and the fact that not everyone might come back alive or at all.

By 1999 I was a true Michael Crichton junky. I had powered through his whole back catalog and aside from a few blips here and there I adored every single volume. Sadly, having read all his books I could do nothing but re-read my favorites while waiting for the next book to come out. And when Timeline came out in November of 1999 I didn't see it for what it was; the beginning of the end. While two of his future books would come to be my most hated of all Crichton's books, Timeline was the one that started the slide in quality. By all accounts I should have loved this book. It's time travel, it's knights, it's amazing new technology, it's a snooze. I remember struggling through this book. Over a month after I had bought it as I unwrapped my Christmas presents I asked my parents to be excused from going to the relatives for our traditional holiday festivities. I was damned if I would waste more time on this book so I resolved to power through it all Christmas day so that at the end of it I could revel in my new books and move on. I curled up on my couch and before my parents even got home I had finally finished Timeline. And in 2004 before the movie came out I struggled through it again. And now, despite my history with this book, I braved it's pages once more and can say that yes, it doesn't improve. Even a decade didn't improve it one little bit, aside from reaffirming my desire to never be transported via beams or lasers. In fact, I think I found Timeline even more annoying this time around.

The overall problem with this book is that it hinges on a faulty premise. There is NO REASON for the grad students to rescue their professor. What's in it for them? Up until his disappearance into the past he's had a total of about two lines and we're supposed to believe that these four students are willing to sacrifice their lives for him? Why? Is he really that awesome? Chris, who views him as a father figure might have some reason, and he's the most hesitant! But other then that there is NO REASON. Stern made the right choice. Stay behind, survive. But the lack of character development isn't just in Professor Johnston, though he is the most obvious. None of the characters are developed in any tangible way. They are astonishingly ignorant and two dimensional, so much so that I have no idea how they even got into grad school. Here's the evil English warlord, here's the female grad student who can be independent, but when a man rescues her she'll swoon and think about marriage and happily ever afters. There is no depth, no development, no reason to root for these characters and hope they make it back to their own time.

The two dimensionality extends into the worldbuilding, as in, here's a cookie cutter Medieval World, go play in it. For all the trash talk of Disney and immersive experiences, I gotta say, I think Disney would do a better job then Doniger and ITC. Disney would at least have a PROPER MAP! I mean, I thought that I had misremembered and that my compass disorientation was because I wasn't paying attention to the included map, but I was wrong! It's the book, not me! At one point the Green Chapel is in the woods to the east about two miles, later it's only a quarter mile to the north? Geographic orientation be damned! Plus how are they getting so easily across the river when there aren't that many boats? Plus all the knights and lords are so basic you can't tell one apart from the other. Plus which castle is which? Their names are bandied about and switched so much that not only is this novel really really flat, but also confusing as hell. It's just adding problems one on top of the other for readers, plus, plus, plus. Plus for the first hundred or so pages, it just made my head hurt.

Re-reading this book after so long I realized it's like a really bad episode of Doctor Who without The Doctor; but not cool like "Blink" but lame like "Love and Monsters." Oh, and give him the worst companions ever, lets say Mickey, Adric, and Peri. So, it's Mickey, Adric, and Peri wandering around and killing people left and right and getting no closer to saving The Doctor because their combined stupidity is so staggering you are blown away. But even if The Doctor wasn't present look at the name of the show, Doctor Who! He is the driving force, much like Professor Johnston should be but isn't. Yes, this book came out in 1999, but the thing is time travel and science fiction already had set expectations for a narrative that had nothing to do with re-launching Doctor Who. The readers of this genre are smart and savvy. We expect the best out of a book we're expending our time on. The thing that struck me most is that this is really time travel for dummies. It's like The Da Vinci Code, written with the masses in mind, not bothering with those readers who might actually have an intellect.

Which brings me to the fact that I am capable of independent thought and therefore I will now poke holes in Crichton's theory of time travel. Can we really call it time travel? He even says it's more like space travel, because you are not going back along your own timeline, but you're crossing over into a parallel dimension that is almost but not quite the same. Which means we get into a paradox of parallel universes. How do they know that they can effect their timeline? If they aren't in their universe how can they A) be sure it's historically accurate and B) get the note from the professor. To tackle A, let's look at the mill. Chris is surprised to see the mill has four not three wheels as he thought. What if the difference between our universe and the one they go to is just that there's one more water wheel? Chris, hard as it may be to believe, might be right. As for B, how exactly did the professor know they were going to find his note for help? He's in another freakin' universe! The fact is small differences in dimensions would really add up which in turn makes the book not add up. Yes, I am probably over thinking this, but I just want it to be better, to be so much more, not Medieval Dan Brown! But I think I have proven beyond a doubt that re-reading Timeline can't magically change what's written.


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