Book Review – Michael Crichton’s “Timeline”

Around a month ago I finished reading Timeline, a thrilling time-travel adventure story written by Michael Crichton.

This was my second time reading this book as I once read it about ten years ago.  I remembered it being interesting, but forgetting the details about how things worked in the story.  After reading it again, I can certainly say that, along with Jurassic ParkTimeline might be one of Crichton’s *best* stories.

Michael Crichton — Timeline

Set in modern time (1999), Timeline begins with a couple traveling through the Southwest and discovering a man wandering around in a desert.  There’s no explanation for him being there, and he’s dressed in Medieval clothes.  The man is rambling and obviously injured, so the couple drives him to a nearby clinic.  Unfortunately, he soon coughs up blood, goes into cardiac arrest, and then dies.  What’s even more puzzling to the doctors is that the x-ray and CT scan show that basically all of the man’s organs, bones and blood vessels are slightly offset within his body.

It’s soon revealed that the man is an engineer for ITC, a high-tech company located in an isolated part of New Mexico.  To make matters more interesting, the man had a diagram for an ancient French monastery that was destroyed hundreds of years ago.

Over in Dordogne, France, American professor Edward Johnson is leading a small team of archaeologists and historians in an excavation of two towns separated by a river — Castelgard and La Roque.  The area being studied was known for being a battleground between English and French forces.

The expedition is being funded by ITC (one of many projects).  When one of the ITC representatives pays the site a visit, Johnson is suspicious when the person knows more details about the area than should be known at that point in time.  Wanting to know more about ITC’s knowledge, Johnson returns to the company’s headquarters and meets with its founder, Robert Doniger.

While ITC is a high-tech company, one of Doniger’s goals is to make money by recreating incredibly well detailed historic sites.  These sites would become mini historic theme parks, places where people could temporarily escape from the problems and stress of today’s world.  The sites would be surrounded by Doniger’s hotels and restaurants, and he could potentially earn billions of dollars in the long run.  Not that it would matter that much as he’s already filthy rich from his start-up companies.  The key part of the plan is getting technical and historical details as accurate as possible to not only make it fun and educational, but convincing as well.

Work continues back in France while Johnson is visiting ITC.  This includes graduate students Andre MarekChris HughesKate Erickson, and David Stern.  Marek is the leader of the team while the professor is away.  Not only does he have a fascination with the Medieval time period, but he practices using weapons from that time period as well.  Kate is interested in studying the architecture, while Chris mainly uses the expedition as an excuse to get away from his personal problems back in the U.S.

A short time passes and there’s no word from the professor.  The group’s suspicion rises more when they’re digging at the site and recover what looks like the professor’s eyeglasses, and a note that says “help”.  They think it’s a prank at first until they analyze the evidence and discover that the artifacts have been buried for hundreds of years.

ITC contacts the graduate students and urgently flies them back to New Mexico.  It’s a race against time to save their professor.

It turns out that ITC has discovered a way to basically travel through time.  It’s not hopping back and forth like in Back to the Future, but rather traveling through space-time and quantum foam to visit alternate universes as proven in the multiverse theory.  Time travel is more like space travel in this book.  To do so, individuals are scanned and a computer makes a “blueprint” of that person.  Each person then steps into a cage about the size of a phone booth.  That is then shrunk to the size of subatomic particles where they encounter quantum foam and “wormholes” linking to whichever alternate universe they wish to visit.  The person is recreated in the other universe while the original person is simultaneously destroyed.

The trick is that ITC doesn’t have the knowledge of recreating the people in the other universe.  However, somewhere in an alternate universe a version of ITC *does* have that knowledge, and they are the ones who reconstruct the travelers.  It’s complicated and a little bit spooky, but apparently it works.

A problem though is that traveling back and forth isn’t perfect.  Over time there are “transcription errors“.  Basically, the more often you keep destroying and rebuilding something, then the edges don’t line up like they should.  Over time this can cause serious medical problems from insanity to even death, such as with the ITC engineer at the beginning of the story.  As a result, people are limited to the number of times they can travel through time.

Anyway, it turns out that the professor volunteered to go back in time and visit the Dordogne region.  He strayed away from his transport vehicle and was captured by English forces led by Lord Oliver of Castelgard.  If the graduate students want to save their professor, then they’ll have to travel to that universe and rescue him.  They agree to do so, but David Stern elects to remain behind.  The three other students are escorted by two ITC military escorts.  They go through the scanning process, change into Medieval clothing, and then use the machines to travel to the year 1357.

Unfortunately, the group is attacked by a band of horsemen almost immediately.  Chris, Kate and Marek flee and become separated while their military escorts are attacked.  One of them is killed instantly, and the other is critically wounded.  He travels back to New Mexico, but the grenade he was holding explodes, damaging most of the time travel laboratory at ITC.

That’s just the start of the action in 1357 France.

It’s a race against time as the gang not only has to communicate and learn who they can trust in that world, but also stay ahead of pursuing troops.  They have to find a way to stay ahead of danger, rescue their professor, and somehow escape from the area before the English and French armies clash in a terrible battle.

In the end, Chris and Kate return to the present time with the professor while Andre elects to remain behind with Lady Claire.  After returning to the present, they locate the ruins and discover Andre’s grave.  It turns out that he lived a happy and fulfilling life in Medieval France.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is Michael Crichton’s Timeline a good book?

Absolutely!

This is a fascinating adventure story that not only deals with Medieval times, but with some pretty hefty science-fiction and time travel as well.  The characters are great, there’s plenty of action and suspense, and the story feels very satisfying in the end.

My only questions dealt with the time travel itself.

It’s mentioned that time travel wasn’t literally travelling through time but rather hopping into an alternate universe where those nearly exact conditions exist.  It’s like saying right now there’s an alternate universe set in 1939 at the outbreak of World War 2.  You could conceivably go there right now and live out the battles and horrors that took place during that war.  All of the details and technology would be 100% realistic.

This theory means that you literally could travel to a multiverse where your grandfather was still a kid, and then kill him without creating a paradox.  The events in that multiverse don’t have any effect on your primary universe, so you could do anything you wanted without creating a paradox or other bad consequences.

So if all of that is true, then how come the professor’s glasses and message ended up in the dig site?  How come there was a grave for Andre Marek?  Shouldn’t those have only been in that alternate universe set in 1357?

It was mentioned that some of those other universes could affect our current universe (such as in the example of the light particles when explaining multiverses).  But would that allow people to basically travel into the past by entering an alternate universe, and then leave an impact that is visible in our universe?

That’s my only problem with this otherwise fantastic book.

This is a great story for lovers of science-fiction as well as the Medieval Europe time period.  Fans of other works by Michael Crichton will feel right at home here.

In 2003, the movie Timeline was released to the theaters.

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