By Tom De Haven
Updated November 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST


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Michael Crichton’s golden formula (cutting-edge science + plausibly bogus technology + nonstop action) never quite manages to make a trip back to the Middle Ages as deliriously hazardous, or even half as much fun, as his two jaunts through Jurassic Park, but it still works nimbly enough to make Timeline an exhilarating entertainment.

In the isolation of the New Mexico desert, ITC, a low-profile corporation doing research and development in quantum technology, has discovered a way to ”manipulate an orthogonal multiverse coordinate change” — or to put that in layman’s terms, they’ve built a working time machine.

However, before ITC’s megalomaniacal founder, Robert Doniger, can devise a marketing strategy for his new product (yes, of course he’s thinking travel and tourism), there’s a major snafu that could easily turn into a public relations disaster. Dr. Edward Johnston, a well-known Yale professor with close ties to ITC, has ridden one of the prototype machines back to 14th-century France and somehow got himself stranded there.

Quickly, Doniger assembles a small rescue team consisting of two ex-military ”guides” and three of Johnston’s university colleagues. They’re dressed in period costume, outfitted with language translators (how convenient!), and then dispatched to the year 1357, a Prince Valiant time of castles, broadswords, damsels in distress, and knights in clanking armor.

What is strikingly absent from ”Timeline” is any pointed social commentary, a regular component of Crichton novels since ”The Andromeda Strain.” A swipe at the contemporary American’s complete disinterest in the historical past (”temporal provincials,” he calls us) hardly compares with the criticism leveled at the aviation industry in ”Airframe,” or the case made against unethical business practices in ”Rising Sun,” or the controversial take on sexual harassment in ”Disclosure.” Apparently, not too much is bugging Michael Crichton these days.

While the exploits in ”Timeline” are often outlandish and frequently derivative (Hey! Didn’t I see this same escape in a Robin Hood movie?), they’re always a hoot. So it hardly matters — it doesn’t matter — that the minimal plot keeps shrinking until it virtually disappears, or that the action finally becomes so frantic it’s almost slapstick, or that none of the characters, whether hailing from the 14th or 20th century, display much personality. Because this is an unapologetic novel of high adventure, and a very good one at that.

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