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.