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Timeline -  Michael Crichton, book review“The purpose of history is to explain the present – to say why the world around us is the way it is. History tells us what is important in our world, and how it came to be.”
Michael Crichton, “Timeline”

Deep in the French countryside around the Dordogne, a group of historians led by Yale University’s Professor Edward Johnson are hard at work excavating the remains of a castle and its associated settlement from the fourteenth century. The work is progressing well, although the project’s sponsors, an American technology company, are pushing for results faster than they satisfactorily supply them. After taking the decision to speak to the sponsors in person and buy the research team more time, Johnson returns to the US, leaving experienced medievalist Andre Marek in charge of a team of graduate students and technicians at the site. Shortly after Johnson leaves France, the remaining team have a breakthrough: a previously unknown cellar is discovered beneath the site’s monastic buildings, and it has been sealed so tight over the centuries that its contents are remarkably intact. The most exciting of these finds is a set of scrolls, one of which has the message “help me, 4/7/1357” written on it in period ink, in the Professor’s distinctive handwriting. Marek assumes this must be an elaborate joke, but then he gets a phone call from the sponsors asking him to gather a small team of his most knowledgeable people and leave for New Mexico right away.

For those of you who haven’t guessed already, the sponsors have access to a time travel mechanism and are interested in the Dordogne site for more than pure historical interest. Well….sort of. Crichton, an author who routinely used his knowledge of science for fictional plotting, was at pains to explain that time travel was impossible and that the book was based around the idea from quantum theory that multiple parallel universes exist at once – so what his characters would be doing would be travelling not to the 1357 of our past, but to the 1357 of a parallel universe that exists at the same time as the late twentieth century in our universe. It is an intriguing explanation, but one that doesn’t really hold up for very long in the context of the plot. Inevitably, our intrepid historians (since when did historians conduct excavations…?) have to travel to the time the Professor has got himself trapped in and use their knowledge of the period to save him. But, how did the Professor manage to leave the note asking for their help if he was in fact leaving it in a 1357 that we have been told is existing simultaneously in another universe rather than at the same place as the excavation in the past? Yes, it seems that even such a scientifically literate writer as Crichton can make plot inconsistencies when it comes to the complex subject of time travel.

The medieval world Crichton created was the result of a great deal of research on his behalf, and this is evident in the richness of the detail, although the way he demonstrates some of this knowledge is a bit annoying. A professional medievalist – or even a graduate student in the field – should hardly find themselves surprised by examples of good hygiene, bright clothing, lavish interior design and swift swordplay between knights. The reader might be, but having it explained to us in this style was hardly appropriate given the amount of time we have spent reading about how marvellous these people are at their jobs. In fact, this is pretty much all we are told about them; the characters are feeble, two-dimensional creations that show quite embarrassingly awful character development over the course of the book. They are such cardboard cut-outs that I’m amazed they could stand up, let alone indulge in a full-range of medieval activities (oh yes, every cliché is here – sword fights, jousting, sieges, secret tunnels in castles, you name it).

And while we are at it, shall we get another complaint of mine out of the way? “Rick Chang was the physical anthropologist on the team. He was trained to deal with human finds; he could look at a pea-sized piece of bone and tell you whether it came from the right wrist or the left, male or female, child or adult, ancient or contemporary.” Now I know that no one gets to be a good guy in a book like this unless they are flawless, but I would like to state clearly that sexing a bone from sight when it is that small is quite simply impossible, and the other claims are dubious at best. One little paragraph, but from someone who has claimed to researched things exhaustively, it is irritatingly inaccurate – and not even necessary for the plot. Rant over.

The story itself is actually quite promising in places – I like the general idea of archaeologists/historians going back into the past and finding that things are not how they have interpreted them to be. There is a lot of potential in that idea. However, this book was written to read like a Hollywood action movie, and our intrepid heroes find themselves being rapidly flung from one implausible crisis to the next in a bid to keep the plot exciting and fast-moving. It doesn’t work; the story just gets to be exasperating and exhausting instead, and the speed at which things happen prevented me from really “getting into” either the story or the period, which was a shame. It was no great surprise to hear that the film rights to the book were bought soon after its publication and a film version starring Billy Connelly, Gerard Butler and Anna Friel was released in 2003. I have seen it and it bears only a loose resemblance to the book, although it isn’t any better.

I think my final summary of this book is that it is a great idea for a story that has been poorly written. It starts off so well, but quickly descends into a disappointing and clichéd race against time (in more ways than one) that left me feeling let down. If you are interested in how to clearly write about complex scientific theories in fiction then it is worth a look – as this bit is done really rather well – but I would not advise other readers to bother with it, I’m afraid.

Not recommended.

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by Michael Crichton

2 Comments on "Timeline"

  1. eilidhcatriona
    14/02/2012 at 10:40 Permalink

    Personally I love Timeline – Crichton is a favourite of mine, and I’ve read Timeline many times, along with all his other novels. I just love the excitement and fun of his writing, I enjoy the science but don’t read too deeply into it. Or maybe I’m just gullible and fully believe all the science in his novels is possible (I’m sure someone somewhere must have cloned dinosaurs by now, I mean Crichton fully explained how to do it…)

  2. Roger Lynch
    27/07/2012 at 21:24 Permalink

    TIMLINE is a great science fiction book. I love it. Not just as a fan but also as a trained historian. Just look at Crichtons bibliographical index in the novel. He realy did some studiing to his work.
    My first knowing dates back to ´93 when I have reading the book review in the newspaper DIE WELT. The commentary had been absolutaly nasty, when pages could burn by evil wording that would have been the case.
    I believe, the author realy never read a page of it, because every comment had been dead wrong.
    Crichton always attacks Manager and Industrial Typs in his books that might have been the reason for the strange critic.
    The script of the movie on the other side is somewhat ” childlike and naive “, family entertainment. It is a nice one for a younger audience and when you know the original book it is just a head-chaker.

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