Michael Crichton just doesn‘t want to let go of the past. In Jurassic Park, he brought back to life a menagerie of dinosaurs, re-creating on a tropical island an era that disappeared 65 million years ago. In his new novel, Timeline, he brings back to life, as it were, the medieval era — or, to be more precise, feudal France in the early 14th century. In Jurassic Park, the past was brought into the present through the technological miracle of genetic engineering (by reconstituting dinosaur DNA extracted from the guts of insects trapped in amber), but in Timeline the present is taken back to the past when a group of historians is sent to the 14th century by a miraculous new quantum-based technology. Cutting between a gleaming high-tech present and a savage, hack-and-slash version of the Middle Ages, Crichton’s story is nothing if not high-concept.
The plotline revolves around the fact that Professor Edward Johnston, eminent Yale historian, is transported back to the 14th century by the secretive International Technology Corp. (ITC), and then fails to return. Sent back to rescue him is a team of medieval experts led by the dashing “experiential historian” Andre Marek, who not only reads medieval languages but can “speak” them. As one who wants to live history, not merely write about it, Marek has been training in the medieval martial arts: jousting, the use of the longbow, and hand-to-hand combat with the broadsword. Accompanying him on this rescue mission are Johnston‘s graduate students Chris Hughes, a rather couch-bound young scholar who has always viewed history through the safe prism of theory, and the spunky, rock-climbing Kate Erickson. You have no idea how useful a skill rock climbing will prove to be in the 14th century; with marauding knights running at you from all sides, there is often no safe direction but up, as in straight up the face of a nearby castle.
Evading marauding knights proves to be our heroes’ major activity back in the medieval world. Their location is a region of the Dordogne which at that time is being invaded by the army of the ruthless Arnaut de Cervole. His sworn enemy, and the present ruler of the region, is Sir Oliver de Vannes, who has captured Professor Johnston under the belief that he is some kind of magus. Oliver believes (rightly) that Johnston knows the formula of the mythical “Greek fire,” an early form of gunpowder, and the whereabouts of a secret tunnel leading into the strategically critical fortress of Castelgard. Finding the hidden tunnel and rescuing the professor are our heroes‘ goals — and needless to say, every medieval man and his dog is out to stop them.
Fortunately, Marek’s prowess with the medieval arts of war proves significantly greater than that of the actual medieval warriors. Early on he unseats the battle-hardened knight Guy de Malegant in a jousting match. With Marek at the helm hacking swaths through the local citizenry, the three moderners fend off attacks again and again. After half a dozen of these increasingly unbelievable, and ever-more-bloody, close shaves, one realizes one has entered the realm of pure Hollywood fantasy.
Yet Crichton seems to have something a tad more intellectual in mind than a medieval Terminator flick. In his acknowledgments, he tells us that while trips to the past remain “firmly in the realm of fantasy,” his “representation of the medieval world has a more substantial basis.” As if to bolster this claim, there follow four pages of references to texts of medieval scholarship. And indeed, when not hacking off heads, Marek et al. reflect on the 14th-century origins of tennis, the finer points of medieval mill construction, and French monastic architecture. But if Crichton was aiming for the engrossing verite of that other great modern medieval adventure, The Name of the Rose, he has sorely missed the mark. Umberto Eco this is not. What we get is a lot more like the Universal Studios theme-park ride. All of which is to suggest that Timeline will probably make a much better movie (and theme-park ride) than it does a novel.
As in Jurassic Park, Crichton likes to base his science fictions around the latest scientific theories. Time travel is, of course, an old sci-fi theme, but Crichton is at pains to assure us that there is nothing that mundane going on in his novel. The core scientific idea here is not manipulation of time per se, but quantum-mechanical manipulations that would supposedly take us into other universes. As one of ITC‘s scientists explains to our historian heroes, this revolutionary technology is based on the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics.
Developed in the late 1950s, the many-worlds interpretation resolves the paradoxes of quantum mechanics by proposing that our universe is just one of an infinite multitude of parallel universes. According to this way of seeing, every time a subatomic particle has the option of jumping into several different quantum states, the current universe splits into several different universes, in each of which one of the quantum options is realized. So, for example, when a photon is faced with the choice of traveling through two adjacent slits, what happens is that the universe splits into two new universes; in one, the photon travels through the left-hand slit; in the other, it travels through the right-hand slit. Since gazillions of subatomic particles face these kinds of choices every microsecond, the universe is spawning off almost-clones gazillions of times per second. If the many-worlds interpretation is correct, then not only is the number of universes almost inconceivable, but every possible combination of events actually occurs in one of them. This mind-boggling array of all possible universes is sometimes referred to as the “multiverse,” and it is this multiverse that Crichton’s ITC scientists have supposedly learned how to manipulate.
The key insight, one of them explains, is that within the multiverse not all universes are simultaneous — some apparently exist at times earlier than ours. We can travel to these other versions of our own universe, he says, by “making wormhole connections in quantum foam” — quantum foam being the underlying flux in which all the universes reside. Ergo, our passport to the past is not time travel as such, but the ability to chart a course across the quantum foam to other versions of our own universe.
The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is highly contested, and the notion that within this multiverse there may be universes that exactly parallel ours, only 600 years behind, is dubious at best. But for the sake of a good yarn, this is not a bad beginning. Science fiction has always been about taking the wildest speculations from the fringes of science and seeing where they might lead. But at the heart of Crichton‘s fantasy there is a deeper problem that ultimately scuttles this whole scenario.
Even if these other universes do exist, they are not spatially or temporally connected to our universe — each universe in the multiverse has its own separate space and time — so there is no way for us to travel to them. Crichton’s scientist acknowledges this problem, but it‘s okay, he says, because you don’t need to send an actual person, just the “information equivalent of a person.” In other words, only a virtual version of you would go there. But if this is indeed the case, then Crichton doesn‘t have a story, because if only Professor Johnston’s “information equivalent” had been sent, he himself would still be here. When this fatal flaw becomes evident, there is nothing for it but to reject Critchton‘s laborious pseudoscientific setup and just pretend that what the ITC has invented is a plain old time machine.
But in Hollywood, which is what all this fuss is really about — Crichton and the director-producer team of Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler-Donner have cut a back-end deal for more than 30 percent of the gross — it will, of course, do nicely. I’m seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, absolutely in his element, broadsword in hand; Sean Connery as Professor Johnston (he‘s already proved his medieval chops); Carie Ann Moss as Kate Erickson; and Angelina Jolie as the luscious Lady Claire — Marek’s ultimate reward for a battle well won.