Timeline, by Michael Crichton

In Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), Robert Doniger, a youngish, thrusting but amoral genius who controls ITC, a large American corporation, has a bold plan, as alpha types tend to have.  The organisation is conducting secret research while buying up large parts of the Dordogne where a group of academics led by Yale scholar Professor Edward Johnston are conducting an archaeological dig on the remains of an extensive mediaeval site, which includes two castles and a monastery, prior to building as accurate a reconstruction as possible.  The site burned down in 1357 after one of the castles was captured when a traitor revealed the location of a secret passage,

The work is progressing slowly, to Doniger’s frustration as the project is hugely expensive and he is keen for the reconstruction to proceed as quickly as possible to placate his investors.  Among Johnston’s team are his assistant hunky André Marek, a physically-fit expert on the period, to the extent that he absorbs himself in the world; David Stern, a physicist; and postgrads Chris Hughes and Kate Erickson.  The academics’ priority is scholarly rigour, and they won’t be hurried, but to their puzzlement find ITC is providing data the excavations have not yet revealed.

Suddenly there is a crisis: Johnston, who went to ITC HQ in the New Mexico desert to discuss the situation with Doniger, seems to have vanished, while his team uncover a message saying ‘help me’ written by him and apparently sent from 1357, alongside a lens from his spectacles.  The abovementioned team members are whisked off to HQ to help resolve the difficulty.  There they learn that Johnston is indeed in the fourteenth century.  It is not, though, our fourteenth century.  They are told that while time travel is not possible, the multiverse theory, in which an infinite number of universes exist, is true.

ITC has discovered a way to send people through a wormhole to a version of 1357 that to all intents and purposes is exactly like ours was; this is done by disassembling individuals and objects, and transporting their code to the other world, utilising the wonders of quantum foam, where they are reassembled.  As one of the ITC employees puts it succinctly: ‘What we have developed is a form of space travel.  To be precise, we use quantum technology to manipulate an orthogonal multiverse coordinate change.’  ITC have been sending ex-military personnel through for some time, with orders to observe but not interact, which is how it was able to supply archaeological data the team had not yet themselves ascertained.

Johnston has gone AWOL back (or rather over) there and ITC wants his associates to exfiltrate him.  They are told the rescue mission will last a couple of hours and they will be accompanied by a pair of trained military escorts (as 1357 is not going anywhere it is not clear what the rush is).  What they are not told is that there are safety issues with the technology; too many trips cause damage at a genetic level – ‘transcription errors’.  David twigs they are not being given full disclosure and elects to stay behind, which is fortunate as he proves to be more use in a crisis than the entire ITC organisation.

Naturally, the plan does not survive first contact with reality.  The group stranded, and the equipment at ITC badly damaged, their chances of returning home appear slim.  While trying to locate Johnston and work out how to get back, they find their assumptions about life during the period of the Hundred Years’ War were not always accurate.  Fortunately, they are able to bring their skills to bear on the constant predicaments inflicted on them (aided by a huge amount of luck) as they race against a deadline imposed in order to inject some tension and keep the pages turning.

Once again Crichton is warning about the dangers of scientific findings used in the wrong way, heedless of consequences, and the ease with which large corporations, unchecked by democratic processes, put profit before safety.  Despite Doniger’s relaxed approach to health and safety, the aim is eventually to monetise the site by making it a time-travel theme park, with others around the world to follow – a kind of Westworld, but going there instead of bringing it here.  In fiction, such hubris is bound to precede the enterprise getting out of hand.  Crichton points up the irony of Doniger claiming that in our inauthentic times the past is authentic, because it is not arranged for the purpose of making a profit, while simultaneously promising to turn it into a commodity.

Quite how ITC’s setup would work in real life is a mystery: considering how many people are involved in the operation, Doniger manages to maintain an admirable level of secrecy.  Any inquisitive journalist is given a bland tour of the facilities guaranteed to cause them to lose interest, when one might expect information to leak to the media and generate considerable buzz faster than one could say ‘Sliders’.  And how Donger thinks governments would allow his vision to be realised once his plans came to fruition, however much cash he splashed, is not addressed.  Officialdom is surprisingly incurious, and it takes an internal coup, with dramatic consequences for Doniger, to stop him.

Clearly Crichton did a lot of research into the period (providing a substantial bibliography to prove it), but the period does not come to life despite his attention to the facts.  The emphasis is on the complicated plot and less on characterisation.  The physics sound superficially plausible, but Crichton is obliged to have an ITC executive drop dollops of techtalk into the narrative, which slows the pace.  Otherwise, narrative progression is busy but jerky.  The book was turned into a not-very-successful film, and with the novel’s frequent, and annoying, cross-cutting of scenes the script was already half-written.

Technically this is not a time-travel novel because they are not going into the past of this world but to a particular period in another quantum universe which has evolved in a remarkably similar manner to our own.  A problem with parallel worlds stories is the assumption they will share an identical evolution to ours, at least until some key event.  This ignores the fact that splitting will have started from the Big Bang, so worlds that look even remotely recognisable will be exceedingly rare, and hard to find.  The technology necessary to send individuals repeatedly to the same period in the same world, one among squillions upon squillions, that is almost precisely like this one was at a specific period in history, then bring them back, would need to be more sophisticated than anything Crichton describes.

Leaving aside the practicalities, by having the action occur in a parallel 1357, Crichton avoids the time-travel grandfather paradox; there is no danger of our present being altered by changes in its past.  But it begs the question how Johnston’s note and spectacle lens ended up being excavated in this one; and how at the novel’s end the group is able to visit the tomb of André (who stayed behind when his colleagues returned) and his wife, when they were buried in the other one.  After the lengthy explanations of the science, and effort to present a credible alternative to hackneyed time-travel plots, it feels like either carelessness, or more probably an unflattering assumption that readers won’t notice.


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