Sunday, October 6, 2013

REVIEW: Timeline by Michael Crichton

by Michael Crichton

A team of archaeologists are digging up a medieval castle when their funders, the mysterious ITC, accidentally drop a hint that they know more about the site than they let on. The lead archaeologist, Professor Johnson, flies to New Mexico to find out what is going on and he doesn't return. Meanwhile, his team unearths an ancient parchment in the ruins, a document dating 600 years old, with the words "Help me!" in the Professor's handwriting. With the questionable aid of ITC, they must travel back in time and save the Professor. Will their expertise help them survive the dangerous middle ages, or will they be crushed underfoot by the march of history?

This is my first Michael Crichton book and I can't say I am a fan. I loved the movie of Timeline (warning, this review is tainted by that), and I hoped the book would be even better. I was surprised at how different the two were, and how the movie streamlined and improved upon the story Crichton told.

For example, time travel is not even mentioned until page 109. The first quarter of the book is taken up with wandering through ITC and the dig site. I honestly would have stopped if I hadn't known that time travel would happen, and the knowing made it even more excruciating.

Crichton loves to bathe in science. The book is saturated with it and it verges on fetishism. And yet the science is questionable. I know little about scientific theory, and even I could see that the logic was flawed. The theory of time travel is based on the idea of the multiverse. That (in an uber simplified version) because you shoot light particles through holes and some hit their target and some disappear, that something blocks them. Obviously, it is another universe getting in the way. It seems like that is the most complicated answer possible for such a phenomenon. The science behind the time travel that ITC uses is really moving a person from one universe to another. But also back in time in that universe. It is an unnecessarily complex method of time travel.

Crichton treats history almost the same way as science, reveling in explaining to the reader why everything we think about the middle ages is untrue. I quite enjoyed his fact dropping as history is more my scene, but at times it did verge historical masturbation. It is full of long anecdotes and facts that have little to do with the plot and more to do with how knowledgeable Crichton was about the subject matter.

The movie simplified a lot of convoluted plot points (ex. the Professor makes greek fire, rather than almost greek fire). Some of the adventures the heroes encounter feel like filler and provide a momentary inconvenience before setting them back on their path again.

The book did maintain an element of the movie I loved: the reality of the middle ages and how the modern archaeologists are completely out of their element. Kate, Andre and Chris each have their own baggage and their own area of expertise that ends up being indispensable to the mission.  Kate is an expert climber and architect. Andre is an expert on medieval life, culture, language and martial arts. Chris is an expert in the history of technology, and the workings of a particular mill that plays a pivotal role. Chris' journey was the most meaty as he goes through the crucible of medieval peril, transforming from a whiny serial dater to a solid, stouthearted friend.

There were some elements to the book that seemed entirely out of place. One adventure leads them to a green chapel where a knight waits with an ax to chop of their head.  Did you just read Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Michael? And the Lady Claire, a sweet, smart, and determined character with a clear goal and a clear purpose in the movie becomes an absolute baffling mystery in the book: a randomly sexualized scheming deus ex machina and reward for sacrifice.

In the end, this book had an interesting premise which crawled, stumbled, danced a jig, and then awkwardly sat down again. All in all, the story and the history ended up being entertaining, but I thought, with Crichton's reputation, we would get a better book.

Books like this (but better!)
The Domesday Book by Connie Willis


Kevin Boyce said...

I read the book first, and as a result had absolutely no interest in seeing the movie. To start with, the science was ridiculous to the point of stupidity. (Protip: glossing over it on the assumption that in the future amazing things will be possible is a fillion times better than trying to explain it using sciencey sounding words that don't actually make even grammatical sense to anyone who knows what they mean.) And then [spoiler warning] the idea that he can blow everyone up in a glorious jet-fuel-fueled* explosion by spitting on them after a 10-page chase (cause they didn't sweat in the middle ages?) made my brain hurt.

In fact, the entire final third of the book read like a script for a blockbuster movie, all over-the-top special effects and chase scenes and nothing interesting. Also the scene where they actually do the time travel, in which he pretends he's describing the science but it reads like a statement of work to a CGI shop. And this is what I thought in about 2000, three years before the movie came out.

If you haven't yet read The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, I strongly suggest you read that next. It's the same sort of "historians time traveling to the past" idea, but written with real emotion, and without overexplained science wrongness.

*Cause that's what they use for explosions in movies.

Megan Reichelt said...

I rewatched the movie last night, and that is pretty much it, but with some great actors, like Billy Connelly, David Thewlis, Gerard Butler, Anna Friel, Neal McDonough, Michael Sheen, and Frances O'Conner. I mostly watch it for them. Paul Walker plays Chris and he is awful. But he is written that way. They turn him into the son of the Professor, all american boy, who doesn't understand this archaeology shit and is just there to visit his dad. He was the one awesome character in the book, and I am sad they ruined him.

In the movie, they use wormholes to explain the time travel, and they have no idea why they are able to do it. That gets rid of a lot of the mumbo jumbo, they are scientists exploring a phenomenon, rather than purposefully doing something.

I love the Doomsday Book! The 1980s idea of what technology will be like in the future made me laugh, but the medieval parts and the university bureaucracy was awesome.

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