Crichton was well known for his stories that went on to be successful (or less than successful) movies. Everything from science fiction such as The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park. to historical subjects such as Eaters of the Dead (aka The Thirteenth Warrior), and The Great Train Robbery.
Timeline straddles both worlds, being a modern day science fiction novel involving time travel to the fourteenth century. And as usual, he’s got a few pages of bibliography references at the back.
Crichton’s strengths come from his research, because he makes his scientific explanations—both legitimate and invented—interesting to read, and bases his history as faithfully as he can on reality. Even when things are invented, they’re grounded in science or history somewhere.
Characters, however, are not always his strongest suit. Their motivations are fine, but don’t always have the most memorable of personalities. You’re more invested in the situation, and while it works fine for Crichton, I do consider it a shortcoming overall in his storytelling. Looking back, I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything memorable about the historians and archaeologists that make up our central cast, working in an archaeological site in France. There’s a nice mix… that’s about all I can say about that.
The leader of this team ends up leaving on a consulting job, and at almost the same time, one of the team finds his glasses buried in the archaeological site, along with a message asking for help. Both dating back to the 14th century.
Soon they discover that he’d been recruited by a company called ITC, the expedition’s funder, who have developed a time travel device using quantum technology. Explaining how this works is above my pay grade [insert obligatory Doctor Who “Timey Whimey” reference]. ITC is headed up by a character best described as Steve Jobs with his Charisma and A-Hole levels cranked up to eleven. Needing to keep this technology secret, it’s up to the professor’s students, with of knowledge of the land and time, to go back and rescue him.
One great strength of this story is that he gives the people of history due credit. We have a tendency in time travel stories to assume they are stupid or naïve simply because we have the wonders of computers at our disposal. We consider ourselves to be pretty smart. We know all the tricks. We figure they’ll fall for the simplest ruses because, hey, it had to be original at some point.
But think about that for a second. A ruse might become obvious to anyone once it’s overplayed in stories (such as the Trojan Horse), but that only means it’s become so obvious anyone could see through it now. It doesn’t mean that a clever and observant person couldn’t have seen through it the first time it was used. Crichton takes this into account and it quickly becomes obvious that those stuck in the past not only don’t have the advantage, they are at a huge disadvantage. Because they’re surrounded by people who live in dangerous times every single day, and these historians are just tourists.
One of the purposes of this story, both while in the present and past, is to make us re-examine our layman assumptions about history, and on that point it succeeds well. It also has a delightfully cynical look at how a miracle such as time travel might be perverted by corporate minded people. And it’s not in the obvious Timecop ways you’re no doubt assuming.
Despite my complaints on characterization, Crichton knows how to weave a good story, and there’s no denying this is one of his more interesting adventures. Time travel is always a tricky thing to do right in fiction, and this approach stands out as one of the better ones I’ve come across.
Crichton’s other weakness tends to be his endings. Many of his stories I find don’t have solid denouements after the initial climax. But Timeline in fact is one of his better outings in that regard, both in terms of initial climax, villain comeuppance, and main character epilogues tying together satisfactorily.
From a writer’s or even a gamer’s perspective, Crichton’s attention to detail is something to be admired, and proves that even if you’re making a lot of crap up in your fantasy or science fiction, grounding it in research really helps with the sense of verisimilitude and immersion. While I wouldn’t advise anyone to do as much research as he does for your next book or campaign, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to do a bit and see where it leads you. You might surprise yourself.
Oh, and this is a book where you are well advised to stay away from the film adaptation. 12% on Rotten Tomatoes. Nuff said. If you’ve already seen it, sorry, there is no time travel available to help you go back and correct your mistake.
Originally Published in KODT #219