Michael Crichton, author of numerous best sellers (Jurassic Park, Congo, Andromeda Strain, Sphere), has once again applied his formula of merging a pseudo-scientific premise with an action driven plot to create TIMELINE. In Crichton's latest novel the pseudo-scientific premise is a combination of time travel and alternate universes.
Edward Johnston, a professor of history at Yale, is leading a group of eclectic graduate students on an archeological dig on the site of a medieval French monastery. When Johnson is summoned to America to meet with the benefactors of the research, he discovers that the company has been secretly developing a form of time travel. After insisting on a first hand demonstration of the equipment, Johnston becomes trapped in 1350's France at the location of the same monastery his students are working on in the present.
The students are then recruited by the company to travel to the past to rescue the professor. The students find themselves applying their knowledge of the past and of the site they have been working on as they fight to stay alive in 1350's France.
I found Timeline to be a disappointing read, filled with plot inconsistencies, dead-end story lines and generally weak characters. After establishing the premise that time travel is not possible, only travel to the past in alternate universes is possible, Crichton quickly contradicts himself by having a number of events that occur in one of his "alternate universes" directly affect the present universe. Such as the discovery of Professor Johnston's note asking for help, which is found among the artifacts of the monastery.
The author builds up several story lines in the first half of the book that are suddenly dismissed in a few brief sentences. One such example is a subplot in which a doctor and local cop suspect something suspicious is happening at the ITC headquarters after an employee is discovered dead in the desert.
Crichton's character development in timeline is so weak that little is known of the characters beyond their names and skills that they bring with them to the project. What little character development Crichton does attempt to apply seems to come with out the benefit of explanation or justification other than to advance the plot. Such is true in the case of Chris Hughes who is transformed at the appropriate time from the weak bookish grad student to the robust, confident hero in order to save the day. Crichton also has his characters fall in and out of love with little more than a one-line sentence describing their feelings and motivation.
Crichton's attempts to create a suspenseful, action driven story felt contrived as he flung his characters from one crisis to the next. Any attempt to intertwine some intrigue and mystery to the story only resulted in a muddled mess that caused me to lose interest in the resolution of the story. Oddly enough Crichton claims that he did exhaustive research on the time period before writing this book. Personally, I never found myself drawn into the time period. Crichton's version of medieval France rang no more true to me than your average fantasy novel set in a vaguely medieval period. Another reviewer aptly described Timeline as the novelisation of a movie not yet made. [Note: Since originally writing this review, the movie has been made and released and its worse than the book!]
Considering the movie rights were optioned almost immediately after the book's publication is no surprise.
As disappointing as I found this book, I would still recommend it based on the fact that the technology was somewhat unique, and I did appreciate the concept of the transcription errors occurring during the time travel process. Although, now that I think about it, the phrase "transcription errors" does sound vaguely like something out of Star Trek and a bad transporter malfunction.
©2000 - A. Taylor
Review Posted: 2000-04-29
Review Posted: 2000-04-29
Michael Crichton's Official Site.
Everything you could possible want to know about Michael Chricton, his books and movies as well as speeches he's given to the US Senate and other organizations.
Review of Timeline - The Movie
Andy's Anachronisms review of Michael Crichton's movie Timeline.