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. And it’s nothing like the H.G. Wells model: This one resembles a phone booth and operates like a fax, compressing three-dimensional objects into a stream of electrons for instant transmission to the past.
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.
Within minutes of the team’s arrival near the walled city of Castelgard, both guides are slaughtered by horse soldiers in the employ of Sir Oliver de Vannes, a bloodthirsty and boorish English nobleman who has seized control of the area. Suddenly, the success of the rescue mission depends entirely on two young grad students—Chris Hughes and Kate Erickson—and a 29-year-old assistant professor of history, Andre Marek. No big surprise, though, that the academics turn out to be a very resourceful trio, especially the handsome Marek, who just happens to be an expert on all things medieval, including sword fighting and tournament jousting.
Our heroes soon discover that Professor Johnston has been mistaken for a Merlin-like sorcerer (it was his bad luck to be spotted materializing out of thin air) and captured by Sir Oliver. After an awful lot of running and hiding, diving, cliff-hanging, wall climbing, and mortal combat, Marek, Chris, and Kate finally discover an underground passageway that leads into the heavily fortified castle La Roque. But before they can whisk away the old professor and beat it back to their time machine, an army of renegade French soldiers attacks and overruns. More running, more hiding, etc.
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.
Although he often slips into sonorous lecture mode (”The modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology….”) and can never resist offering us factoids that range from the architecture of monasteries to the invention of both tennis and romantic love, his medieval France nevertheless ends up being the sort of once-upon-a-time realm where the villains all sneer and the heroes are unfailingly athletic. 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. B