Michael Crichton's exciting novel isn't identified as science fiction at Penn Hills Library (where I found it in the new books racks, and where otherwise SF is labeled and shelved separately from mainstream), nor by the publisher (perhaps to avoid what could be a profit-reducing stigma for general readers), but it certainly is 'Certes' as they say in the blend of languages used.
Timeline also is a Crichton, in the tradition of such novels as The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, Jurassic Park, and The Lost World (among others) that are designed and crafted to become best-sellers, and then major if not blockbuster movies, and often do so. It's carefully planned and written - with nonstop action ready to convert to screen - to follow that successful pattern. That commercial orientation (or resentment of his resulting financial success) could cause SF people to avoid it as too mainstream, which would be a mistake, because it's excellent and highly entertaining. (I was fascinated and almost literally couldn't put it down.)
Timeline is a time travel story with both classic themes (but clever avoidance of others) and fresh ideas. Typically, this begins and ends in a world that could be our present (or near future), providing easily recognizable characters and backgrounds, and opportunities to comment on our world and its failings.
Using newly invented technology (that's secret but, for a change, in private rather than government hands), some characters travel back to English-occupied France of the 14th Century - a seemingly simpler and picturesque time of castles and knights in armor. (Well, sort of. Why this isn't really time travel is a long story, plausibly explained, that makes little difference to the plot.) History professor (and archeologist) Edward Johnson disappears during a visit there; and his students - Andre Marek, Chris Hughes, and Katherine Erickson - are sent to rescue him (while another stays behind on the home front).
In the past they soon encounter different situations and problems than they expected or were prepared for, are swept into dangerous and sometimes breathtaking action in the middle of the Hundred Years War, and have to struggle to survive, let alone get back home. (This wasn't Disney World and the castles, armor, and weapons weren't for show.) Part of the fascination is to learn how different some of the dangers, problems, and personalities are from those they or we expect - yet how much others (and human nature) are the same - and thus how right and wrong some of our ideas about the "Dark Ages" may be.
In the course of this, better than average character development takes place (if some could have been deepened), introducing us to memorable heroes, villains, and some with realistically complex attributes of both. Good and bad people turn up in unexpected places or make surprising shifts. Villainous nobles and soldiers of the past have as their counterparts corporate executives of the present. Foremost among the latter is Robert Doninger - a brilliant physicist and inventor of the quantum physics "time travel" device who's become a sociopathic billionaire capitalist and CEO - who seems a sort of caricature of too many present day corporate heads.
In other hands even this could have been made dull; but in Crichton's, the action flies at that Jurassic Park pace, never letting you relax. Surprises arise (as everything goes wrong) and mysteries linger throughout. Suspense and anxiety never let up until the end. And you could read the end first, know how it was going to turn out, and still not have a clue how (nor what motivated much of it) until the last chapters. The writing is complicated (but never dense). And almost every page is a pleasure to read. The ending is satisfying - happy for some yet still surprising - as both good and bad guys get what they have coming, and an old style epilogue wraps up loose ends.
Yet the background of this wild tale is carefully researched. The 450 page book opens with an introduction that blends nonfiction seamlessly into SF. It's supported by helpful illustrations (through I could have used more maps). And it ends with acknowledgements and a 4 page bibliography of historical and scientific sources. The settings and history through which the story is woven, like a tapestry of the period, are supported by documents and studies (if real characters and details had to be fictionalized).
Scientific explanations of "time travel" (which actually is done by jumping into an alternate universe where time but not much else is different) are only sufficient to let the story flow without detracting from it. They're not hard science - noting we can do yet - and may stretch ideas to the point of fantasy (while inventing more to fill gaps). But they're not ridiculous, but grounded in current quantum physics (which is demonstrated daily to work in hardware, though nobody really understands it. On the day I picked this up, I read journal articles about related discoveries, and an article in Scientific American about how similar techniques might someday be applied to travel through space.) And the theory of a "multiverse" of adjacent universes seems up to date and, if unproven, possibly valid.
Crichton did his homework about as well as most SF writers ever do. He applied it in the spirit in which others have written, e.g., of space travel and alien worlds by extrapolating from what we do know. In the bargain, he advanced an interesting idea of what time is, and a plausible excuse for why the paradoxes that worry most time travel writers (in SF or physics) may really be no problem. And, if he sued the SF framework and technology mainly as an excuse to set a story in olden times, that's nothing new, but almost an overused convention of the SF field.
No fiction is perfect. There are odd holes in the ideas and plot; at least one important character is left shallow; and I wish I could ask Crichton why he didn't bother to explain away (as he could have done easily) one gap in his time travel rationale that bothered me. That said, this is the best novel I've read in a while (I'm shamelessly looking forward to the movie), and is highly recommended.
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