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Timeline (1999)

by Michael Crichton

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11,778170397 (3.55)112
A Yale history professor travels back in time to 15th century France and gets stuck, unable to return to the present. His colleagues organize a rescue and on landing in France become involved in the Hundred Years War.

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The main take-away from Timeline is that time travel, despite its ubiquity in fiction, is really hard to get right in a story, even for a thriller writer as able as Michael Crichton. Timeline won't be remembered as one of his best. It does have an easy Saturday-afternoon popcorn-film sort of charm, the sort of thing I would have lapped up as a child back in the Nineties, but it struggles to hit its plot points naturally.

The warnings come early on, when a random day-tripper in modern-day America almost immediately recognises a strange map as being a floorplan of a medieval monastery, and a young kid in a waiting room overhears a conversation and pipes up with everything he knows about 'quantum foam'. This forced storytelling continues throughout: one of the characters, for example, trains regularly in medieval combat, just because he likes it, so you know it is going to become useful when he is one of those cast back in time to medieval France. Much of the story is untidy (the old man at the start, who triggers the plot, is part of an arc that is left underdeveloped) and many plot pivots are put down to chance and 'bad luck'. The denouement of the story provides hasty comeuppance for its villains and unfulfilling development for its protagonists (though André's contribution to the Epilogue is rather affecting).

All in all, the features of the story – interesting in isolation – are cobbled together as a sort of potluck. Time travel is always fun, but this book never rises above such disposable, pulpy fun. Crichton is always willing to bring science and research into his stories, and he makes a game attempt here with quantum computing and medieval verisimilitude, but he acknowledges at the end of his book that time travel "rests firmly in the realm of fantasy" (pg. 490). Timeline, unfortunately, proves to be a potboiler. ( )
1 vote Mike_F | Mar 28, 2021 |
It was super fun to read this first draft of the film script, a film sadly never made. It's too late now, it should've been made in the 90s, with Schwarzenegger, Slater and I'm not sure who the author had in mind for Kate (Cate Blanchett?). It would've been the epitome of a 90s film, stupid but fun. Don't get me wrong, the book is terrible (with scenes that don't connect, reminiscent of jarring jump cuts in a film to keep it moving quickly, cartoonishly flat characters, plots twists brazenly cliched) but if you just go with it you'll enjoy it. ( )
  TeaTimeCoder | Dec 23, 2020 |
I came across this book on a list of the best time-travel books ever written. The other books on the list have been interesting and enjoyable, leading me to books and authors new to me. But this one is a dud. Dreadful.
The characters are one dimensional stereotypes. The plot is inane and contrived - very juvenile. I got halfway through, but choked.
There was some interesting stuff about life in the middle ages, and the sci-fi nature of the time travel was reasonably well done, but the rest of the plot is ridiculous.
One review of the movie of the book said that it fell into the "so bad it's almost good" category. Sadly, the book doesn't rise to such heights. ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 26, 2020 |
Brain candy, a movie thriller plot with cardboard cutout characters.

Its interesting to read Crichton's books 20 years after they were written. This one holds up better then Airframe, which I read earlier in the summer, but maybe that's just because I'm not as familiar with the technical concepts that underlie this book.

Those earbuds that translate languages and allow the team to communicate with each other for over a day's time without running out of batteries - I wish we had that tech today! ( )
  stevrbee | Nov 7, 2020 |
Different from the movie, but still good. The time travel is a little convoluted, but I enjoyed the plot of surviving in medieval times. As always the writing is very good, even the quantum foam babble. It's still not as great as Jurassic Park, but entertaining all the same. RIP Michael. ( )
  tkfinch75 | Jul 26, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 163 (next | show all)
''Timeline'' ends with Doniger delivering a caustic denunciation of the ''mania for entertainment'' that pervades American culture, in which jaded consumers increasingly seek an ''authenticity'' of experience that not even the most sophisticated ''artifice'' can offer. (Doniger wants to market time-travel as the ultimate amusement-park ride.) The irony, of course, is that few entertainment products are as artificial as Crichton's own work. Like shiny windup toys, his novels are diverting -- they're manically entertaining. (I gobbled up ''Timeline'' in a single sitting.) But like anything mechanical, they just end up repeating themselves. Whatever time Crichton is in, he's always writing the same book.
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"All the great empires of the future will be empires of the mind."
"If you don't know history, you don't know anything."
"I'm not interested in the future. I'm interested in the future of the future.
For Taylor
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He should never have taken that shortcut.
Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of a market economy to the Middle Ages. And if they didn't know that, then they didn't know the basic facts of who they were. Why they did what they did. Where they had come from. Professor Johnston often said that if you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree.
Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time. Business meetings must be snappy, with bullet lists and animated graphics, so executives aren't bored. Malls and stores must be engaging, so they amuse as well as sell us. Politicians must have pleasing video personalities and tell us only what we want to hear. Schools must be careful not to bore young minds that expect the speed and complexity of television. Students must be amused – everyone must be amused, or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, switch loyalties. This is the intellectual reality of Western society at the end of the century.

In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.
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A Yale history professor travels back in time to 15th century France and gets stuck, unable to return to the present. His colleagues organize a rescue and on landing in France become involved in the Hundred Years War.

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