But we're not ready for the story quite yet. Another dense
page follows, this one purporting to be an extended quote from
what sounds like a dry history book--but is it real? Has the
made-up stuff started yet? It's a neat trick, making us wonder
like this, and it brings to mind the wonderfully playful games
of Jorge Luis Borges (a writer one would not otherwise link to
Crichton in the same sentence, of course). Another page is turned,
and the reader finds, happily, that the next page is blessedly
brief--two quotes, which together seem to sum up quite nicely
what the previous pages went to some length to say: quantum mechanics
isn't something you're ever going to understand. Turn the page
andah, the story finally begins.
A married couple
is driving through a long, empty stretch of Arizona desert when
an old man appears on the side of the road. The husband glances
down at the speedometer and immediately hears a thump. He swears
he's only hit a pothole, but his wife insists that he has in
fact struck the old man and that they must go back and check
on him. Dutifully, the husband turns the car around. The old
man is alive, but he's spouting what sounds like rhyming gibberish.
And even more strangely, he's dressed in flowing robes and actually
feels cool to the touch, even though the desert air is scorching
While his wife tends to the man, the husband looks around,
expecting to find the man's car. But there is nothing around
them--and no sign of how the man got to that stretch of road.
Somehow, it would seem, he's simply appeared from the
middle of nowhere--into the middle of nowhere. The couple helps
the man into their car, and they drive him to the nearest hospital.
A local cop shows up and quickly clears them of any wrongdoing--there's
no damage to the car, and the man doesn't appear to have been
struck by a car. But there's something strange about the man:
his fingertips are turning blue, as if he's suffering from frostbite.
And, as the emergency room doctors find after examining his MRI,
his arteries don't seem to be lining up quite right--it's as
if he's been disassembled and reassembled incorrectly.
The man has no identification on his person, but the doctors
find an architectural drawing in one of his pockets. While they
mull over the man's strange symptoms and wait for results from
a fingerprint check, he suddenly begins vomiting blood. They're
unable to save the man's life, but the cop does get an identification
off the fingerprints: the dead man is a respected physicist,
employed byyes, that's right: ITC. The physicist, it would seem,
had been secretly experimenting with quantum time travel and
gotten his body 'misaligned.'
In the meantime,
an ITC-funded archaeological site in France (it happens to be
the site of the medieval monastery shown in the physicist's drawing)
starts running into problems of its own. ITC's visiting vice
president seems to know more about the site than the archaeologists
do, and the site's director, a Yale professor, flies to New Mexico
to question ITC officials. Days later, a lens from a modern pair
of bifocals is found buried in a layer of medieval artifacts,
and a note is found nearby:
Although the grad students at the site readily recognize the
handwriting as the professor's, tests confirm its age to be at
least six hundred years old.
Soon, another ITC vice president shows up, asking the grad
students to help the company out with a little problem. The professor,
it would seem, had gotten a demonstration of time travel, and
he wandered away from the machine. Now, the VP says, they need
four students who understand the Middle Ages--language, customs,
etc.--to travel back and rescue the professor.
And if that's not a call to adventure, I don't know what is.
As usual, Crichton
does a bang-up job with the science behind the book, and I must
hasten to correct my characterization of the central plot device
as 'time travel.' Crichton's grad students are actually space-traveling
because, as one of ITC's vice presidents says, "Time travel
is impossible. Everyone knows that."
They are, instead, using wormholes in the quantum foam to
slip into a parallel universe. Or in the VP's formulation, ITC
"uses quantum technology to manipulate an orthogonal mutiverse
coordinate change." That is, with the aid of a massively
powerful quantum computer, ITC scans and compresses an individual's
data and "transmit[s] the electron stream through a quantum
foam wormhole and reconstruct[s] it in another universe.It's
not quantum teleportation. It's not particle entanglement. It's
direct transmission to another universe." Technically, the
person himself doesn't travel; only his "information equivalent"
does. (The person himself dies, though his equivalent pops up
nearly simultaneously in a parallel universe without feeling
Sounds simple, right? But Crichton seems to brush over some
complications. How do you know which parallel universe to aim
for, since the world is budding off into new parallel universes
at each moment of 'decision,' i.e., change? (Borges called this
exponential explosion of parallel tracks the Garden of Forking
Paths.) For that matter, isn't it really the case that the rescue-mission
grad students are merely in the parallel universe that resulted
from the professor deciding to enter another parallel universe?
And thus they're also safely together--professor and the rest--in
another, alternate universe's France, where the professor decided
not to space-travel?
Of course, Crichton's after smaller fish than that sort of
gaping conundrum. His abiding theme is much simpler and more
earthbound: what, he wants to know, will happen if we don't reign
in the stunningly dangerous combination of cutting-edge science
and corporate greed? Will we find ourselves in a world-threatening
crisis simply because it's profitable? Of course, it will, Crichton
argues, because the greedy corporate leaders don't consider the
ethical implications behind their efforts. Crichton's taken on
this sort of thematic material before (the parallels to Jurassic
Park are a bit unsettling, frankly), but his background research
and smooth explication of quantum mechanics keeps Timeline
from feeling old hat. And his historical research seems solid
as well: the space-travelling grad students, most readers will
probably agree, seem to caught up in a fairly realistic (if shockingly
bloody) depiction of France in the fourteenth century.
though, fare less well--as usual. In book after book, screenplay
after screenplay, Crichton has rather defiantly refused to make
his characters even begin to approach what E.M. Forster called
'rounded'. They are, in fact, about as flat as characters can
get. "In their purest form," Forster writes of flat
characters in Aspects of the Novel, "they are constructed
around a single idea or quality," and "[t]he really
flat character can be expressed in a single sentence"--and
this is precisely the problem Crichton's characters exhibit.
It's a simple trick, really, repeated ad nauseum. Crichton
introduces a character with a few sentences of backstory (almost
none of which is relevant; it's merely there as a place marker,
I think) and then gives him an easily remembered (and vital,
plot-wise) characteristic that will define him for the rest of
the story. A few examples from Timeline: Marek the Middle
Ages expert, Kate the rock climber, David Stern the computer
geek. Each of them comes with a lengthier introductory story,
but you really don't need to remember it. You just have to remember
that one relevant trait. As Forster writes,
One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily
recognized when they come in--recognized by the emotional eye,
not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a
proper name.It is a convenience for an author when he can strike
with full force at once, and flat characters are very useful
for him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away,
have not to be watched for development, and provide their own
atmosphere--little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed
hither and thither like counters across the void or between the
stars; most satisfactory.
Of course, Borges (there he is again) also famously rejected
the nuances of the rounded character. But then again, he was
interested in writing a different kind of story altogether. For
Borges, flat characters meant revolution. (Think of the characters
in the gauchos stories--in place of Crichton's single-trait
Climber and Computer Geek, we get universal-theme characters
like Honor and Treachery. Their stories, in Borges' terms, were
straightforward, but never simple.)
For Crichton, flat characters seem merely to mean ease of
use. Easy on the writer, easy on the reader--and easy on the
screenwriter facing the challenge of translating the book to
film. Is anyone surprised that the screen rights to Timeline
have already been bought by Paramount?
you can't help thinking how fast the movie will be, if the screenwriter
simply stays as close to the novel as possible. Eye-catching
premise, short, crosscutting chapters, compressed time, breakneck
pace, characters with a single, easily conveyed trait: Crichton
probably comes as close to writing pure Hollywood films in the
novel genre as you can get.
Of course, that's not necessarily a good thing, in some people's
eyes--maybe even in Crichton's. After all, he set out to write
more than a fun adventure book. Unfortunately, action
won out over the warning bells, in the end. Ironically, I suspect
the screenwriter will be most tempted to strip away some of the
action in Timeline's final scenes because the crises the
students face time after time start to feel alike, once the reader
grows numb to their patterns. The serious drama, such as it is,
should survive largely in tact.
And let's face it: it'll probably be a damn fun movie.