Crichton, Michael. Timeline.

NY: Knopf, 1999.

Crichton got kind of strange in his later years, and his last couple of books before his death in 2008 were not much more than right-wing political screeds, but he wrote some pretty good techno-thrillers in earlier times. In fact, most of his first dozen books were published under pseudonyms because he was still earning his living as a medical doctor, but The Andromeda Strain (1969) jumped him into the Big Time and established a niche for him somewhere between science fiction and Tom Clancy. And while the quality of his work varied a good deal, this is one of his better ones.

There are two foci to the story. The first is an archaeological dig in the Dordogne being undertaken by Prof. Johnston of Yale and his group of pre-docs. They’re excavating a site containing a castle, a fortress, a monastery, and the associated town that were on the border between French and English territory in the 1350s, shortly after Poitiers, and where there was known to have been a siege and battle. The second plotline is set at a high-tech research facility in the New Mexico desert, where Robert Doniger, a genius at physics, a self-made billionaire entrepreneur, and a right piece of work in his personal attitudes, has been developing what amounts to time travel (though the author explains it all vaguely in terms of quantum physics and the multiverse). Doniger’s company is sponsoring the French dig and he has his own plans for the site.

The Professor (which is how he’s known to his students) isn’t exactly Indiana Jones, but he’s not entirely a fuzzy-minded academic, either. He picks up some unguarded comments from one of Doniger’s people that make him think his sponsors are holding out on him, so he goes off to New Mexico to find out what’s going on. And he does. The next thing his students know, they’re being summoned from the dig to help rescue their mentor from his unplanned venture back to the 14th century. And time is very limited.

There are two things the author has to deal with here — the fictional science and the medieval real world. He does a good job with the former, eliding the imagined technology and explaining things with a flurry of jargon sufficient to make it acceptable. (Although there have been enough new developments in quantum theory in the past fifteen years to raise some eyebrows among the knowledgeable.) But I was a bit surprised to find that he also manages to get things right about medieval France. I know something about the history of that period, and I know quite well how much pop fiction and Hollywood usually get wrong, but Crichton seems to enjoy pointing up those very issues, putting ridiculous misunderstandings in the mouths of tourists at the site that cause the working historians to roll their eyes.

The characterizations are kind of another matter, however. Doniger is the standard Bad Guy CEO, caring only about his own projects and with contempt for anyone lacking his brain power. He doesn’t really care who dies as long as he gets his way. The Professor doesn’t really have a lot to do, actually, being the “grail” of the plot most of the time rather than an active participant. The story mostly revolves, instead, around the grad students: Andre Marek, an “experimental” historian (he can use a broadsword and a bow, fight in a tournament, speaks Middle French and Occitan, and would love to be able to buckle his swash in the 14th century), Kate Erickson (a refugee from the architecture school who has become the team’s expert on buildings and construction, and who is also an experienced Colorado rock-climber — which is going to be useful), Chris Hughes (an historian of science and technology who is doing his dissertation on water mills, and who is also the least comfortable about actually going back to early France), and David Stern (a physicist, not an historian at all, who hired on to the team because his girlfriend was spending the summer nearby). Stern, in fact, is the only one who has even a vague understanding of the science involved and he ends up staying behind in New Mexico, where his own background and common sense will make a key contribution to the plot.

All these people are admittedly clichéd. But this isn’t meant to be great literature. It’s a romp with all the verisimilitudinous details, constructed around a complicated plot with multiple levels, and as such it succeeds pretty well. So join the adventure and don’t take it all too seriously.

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