The Barnes & Noble Review
With the exception of The Lost World, his disappointing sequel to Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton has never stepped into the same river twice. In the 30 years since his first bestseller, The Andromeda Strain, was published, he has written with authority and passion on subjects as varied as airline safety, Norse mythology, alien contact, Victorian train robbers, Japanese business practices, and sexual politics in corporate America. It should come as no surprise, then, that his latest novel, Timeline, is a radical departure from all that has gone before it, and is "typical" only in its characteristic commingling of high-powered narrative and technical expertise.
The technological starting point for Timeline is the emerging science of quantum mechanics, a field of study so abstruse, so "nonintuitive" that, in Richard Feynman’s words, "nobody understands [it]." Crichton, of course, has never been one to allow complex technologies intimidate him, and quantum theory provides him with the speculative basis for Timeline's central conceit: That we live, not in a finite universe, but in a "multiverse" composed of an infinite, constantly expanding series of parallel universes in which all past moments continue to exist. Crichton then posits an imaginary technology that uses quantum computers that are literally capable of "faxing" human beings to selected target areas of the multiverse. The result is a kind of de facto time travel, a phenomenon around which Crichton constructs an exciting -- and ingenious -- story.
In the opening pages, Crichton introduces us to two of Timeline’s primary players. One is Edward Johnston, historian, Yale professor, and leader of a team that is exploring a medieval ruin known as Castelgard, a French fortress town that was burned to the ground during the Hundred Years War between England and France. The other player is Robert Doniger, petulant genius and CEO of a high-tech research firm called ITC. ITC is the silent, unacknowledged leader in the field of quantum mechanics. For hidden reasons of its own, it also provides the funding for a number of historical research efforts, one of which is the Castelgard project.
Trouble begins when Johnston becomes privy to Robert Doniger's most closely held secret: the quantum transmitter. At Doniger's invitation, Johnson makes use of the transmitter, which allows him to travel to 14th-century France, and to experience the world of medieval Europe firsthand. When Johnston, for unknown reasons, fails to return, Doniger persuades three of his graduate assistants -- an architect, a medievalist, and a scientific historian -- to travel back in time, locate the professor, and bring him safely home. Nothing, of course, comes off according to plan.
Within minutes of their arrival at Castelgard, the students -- who are accompanied by "professional" field guides -- are attacked, separated, and very nearly killed. Their dramatic arrival marks the opening movement of an energetic, furiously paced melodrama. Having rigorously established the novel's technological premises, Crichton the scientist now gives way to Crichton the storyteller, and he subjects his characters to a relentless series of battles, betrayals, cliff-hanger conclusions, and hairbreadth escapes. Faced with a mission that must be completed within 37 hours (after which their escape route back to the present is effectively closed), the three time travelers struggle to survive within the harsh realities of a culture that is both familiar and strange, while crises accumulate at both ends of the timeline, and the quantum clock ticks steadily down to zero.
It's all hugely enjoyable and should have Crichton's many readers beating a path to their local bookstores. As is usually the case with Crichton’s fiction, half the fun comes from the sheer range of the author's knowledge, and from the ease with which that knowledge is integrated into the story. During the course of Timeline, we are treated to quick, authoritative discussions on a host of subjects, including: the history and theory of quantum mechanics, the politics of the Hundred Years War, the science of graphology, the economics of the feudal system, the evolution of gunpowder, the proper techniques for riding, climbing, and jousting, and the medieval origins of tennis. Education should always be this painless.
All in all, Timeline strikes me as Crichton’s most effective novel since Rising Sun. Despite the complexity of its scientific underpinnings, it is essentially a story of action and adventure, and it wears its learning lightly. Like the best of Crichton’s earlier fiction, Timeline is intelligent, informative, and a great deal of fun. It is also, if you'll pardon the expression, a quantum leap above most bestselling fiction, and is one of the more substantial entertainments you are likely to encounter in these waning weeks of the millennium.
Read an Excerpt
They had arranged to have dinner in the old town square of Domme, a village on top of a cliff a few miles from their site. By nightfall, Chris, grumpy all day, had recovered from his bad mood and was looking forward to dinner. He wondered if Marek had heard from the Professor, and if not, what they were going to do about it. He had a sense of expectancy.
His good mood vanished when he arrived to find the stockbroker couples again, sitting at their table. Apparently they'd been invited for a second night. Chris was about to turn around and leave, but Kate got up and quickly put her arm around his waist, and steered him toward the table.
"I'd rather not," he said in a low voice. "I can't stand these people." But then she gave him a little hug, and eased him into a chair. He saw that the stockbrokers must be buying the wine tonight -- Château Lafite-Rothschild '95, easily two thousand francs a bottle.
And he thought, What the hell.
"Well, this is a charming town," one of the women was saying. "We went and saw the walls around the outside. They go on for quite a distance. High, too. And that very pretty gate coming into town, you know, with the two round towers on either side."
Kate nodded. "It's sort of ironic," she said, "that a lot of the villages that we find so charming now were actually the shopping malls of the fourteenth century."
"Shopping malls? How do you mean?" the woman asked.
At that moment, Marek's radio, clipped to his belt, crackled with static.
"André? Are you there?"
It was Elsie. She never came to dinner with the others,but worked late on her cataloging. Marek held up the radio. "Yes, Elsie."
"I just found something very weird, here."
"Yes. . . ."
"Would you ask David to come over? I need his help testing. But I'm telling you guys -- if this is a joke, I don't appreciate it."
With a click, the radio went dead.
Marek looked around the table. "Anybody play a joke on her?"
They all shook their heads no.
Chris Hughes said, "Maybe she's cracking up. It wouldn't surprise me, all those hours staring at parchment."
"I'll see what she wants," David Stern said, getting up from the table. He headed off into the darkness.
Chris thought of going with him, but Kate looked at him quickly, and gave him a smile. So he eased back in his seat and reached for his wine.
"You were saying -- these towns were like shopping malls?"
"A lot of them were, yes," Kate Erickson said. "These towns were speculative ventures to make money for land developers. Just like shopping malls today. And like malls, they were all built on a similar pattern."
She turned in her chair and pointed to the Domme town square behind them. "See the covered wooden market in the center of the town square? You'll find similar covered markets in lots of towns around here. It means the town is a bastide, a new, fortified village. Nearly a thousand bastide towns were built in France during the fourteenth century. Some of them were built to hold territory. But many of them were built simply to make money."
That got the attention of the stock pickers.
One of the men looked up sharply and said, "Wait a minute. How does building a village make anybody money?"
Kate smiled. "Fourteenth-century economics," she said. "It worked like this. Let's say you're a nobleman who owns a lot of land. Fourteenth-century France is mostly forest, which means that your land is mostly forest, inhabited by wolves. Maybe you have a few farmers here and there who pay you some measly rents. But that's no way to get rich. And because you're a nobleman, you're always desperately in need of money, to fight wars and to entertain in the lavish style that's expected of you.
"So what can you do to increase the income from your lands? You build a new town. You attract people to live in your new town by offering them special tax breaks, special liberties spelled out in the town charter. Basically, you free the townspeople from feudal obligations."
"Why do you give them these breaks?" one of the men said.
"Because pretty soon you'll have merchants and markets in the town, and the taxes and fees generate much more money for you. You charge for everything. For the use of the road to come to the town. For the right to enter the town walls. For the right to set up a stall in the market. For the cost of soldiers to keep order. For providing moneylenders to the market."
"Not bad," one of the men said.
"Not bad at all. And in addition, you take a percentage of everything that's sold in the market."
"Really? What percentage?"
"It depended on the place, and the particular merchandise. In general, one to five percent. So the market is really the reason for the town. You can see it clearly, in the way the town is laid out. Look at the church over there," she said, pointing off to the side. "In earlier centuries, the church was the center of the town. People went to Mass at least once a day. All life revolved around the church. But here in Domme, the church is off to one side. The market is now the center of town."
"So all the money comes from the market?"
"Not entirely, because the fortified town offers protection for the area, which means farmers will clear the nearby land and start new farms. So you increase your farming rents, as well. All in all, a new town was a reliable investment. Which is why so many of these towns were built."
"Is that the only reason the towns were built?"
"No, many were built for military considerations as -- "
Marek's radio crackled. It was Elsie again. "André?"
"Yes," Marek said.
"You better get over here right away. Because I don't know how to handle this."
"Why? What is it?"
"Just come. Now."
The generator chugged loudly, and the farmhouse seemed brilliantly lit in the dark field, under a sky of stars.
They all crowded into the farmhouse. Elsie was sitting at her desk in the center, staring at them. Her eyes seemed distant.
"It's impossible," she said.
"What's impossible? What happened here?"
Marek looked over at David Stern, but he was still working at some analysis in the corner of the room.
Elsie sighed. "I don't know, I don't know. . . ."
"Well," Marek said, "start at the beginning."
"Okay," she said. "The beginning." She stood up and crossed the room, where she pointed to a stack of parchments resting on a piece of plastic tarp on the floor. "This is the beginning. The document bundle I designated M-031, dug up from the monastery earlier today. David asked me to do it as soon as possible."
Nobody said anything. They just watched her.
"Okay," she said. "I've been going through the bundle. This is how I do it. I take about ten parchments at a time and bring them over here to my desk." She brought ten over. "Now, I sit down at the desk, and I go through them, one by one. Then, after I've summarized the contents of one sheet, and entered the summary into the computer, I take the sheet to be photographed, over here." She went to the next table, slipped a parchment under the camera.
Marek said, "We're familiar with -- "
"No, you're not," she said sharply. "You're not familiar at all." Elsie went back to her table, took the next parchment off the stack. "Okay. So I go through them one by one. This particular stack consists of all kinds of documents: bills, copies of letters, replies to orders from the bishop, records of crop yields, lists of monastery assets. All dating from about the year 1357."
She took the parchments from the stack, one after the other.
"And then" -- she removed the last one -- "I see this."
Nobody said anything.
The parchment was identical in size to the others in the stack, but instead of dense writing in Latin or Old French, this one had only two words, scrawled in plain English:
"In case you're wondering," she said, "that's the Professor's handwriting."