Monday, September 14, 2009


Our book today is Timeline, the 1999 time-travel potboiler by Michael Crichton. Now that Crichton is dead, I suppose it's time to start overviewing his total output (and deploring the endless series of 'final manuscripts' that will be making their periodic way to bookstore over the next decade - that hoary old device, "wait wait! We found one more manuscript!" - is finally due to be retired forever, and it'll get its due what-nots in the fullness of time from Stevereads) and assessing just what he meant to the millions of non-readers who read his books as the 20th century's technology blossomed like a time-lapsed mushroom cloud.

He wrote 'science fantasies' in the vein of H. G. Wells, and it's pretty clear that for better or worse he was the Wells of his age: he wrote absolutely dreadful prose, his characters were not only cardboard but low-quality flimsy cardboard, his social commentary varied from ham-fisted to outright-nefarious ... and he regularly came up with plot ideas so slam-bang fantastic, so telegraphically immediate, that some of them entered straight into the public zeitgeist (with some help from the movies, but then, Wells got lots of help from the same source), no muss, no fuss, no waiting around on library shelves for fifty years of critical re-appraisals.

I'm still undecided on whether or not Crichton consciously mimicked the masters - or whether the bedrock fascinations and problems of science have remained the same for a hundred years. Certainly what worked for such old-time mountebanks as Wells, Verne, and Doyle worked equally well for Crichton even in the era of computers and biotechnology, and perhaps somebody once had a talk with him about updating the canon of cautionary tales. The War of the Worlds and The Andromeda Strain are basically the same book. Prey and The Invisible Man both deal with the unseen terror among us. Next is The Island of Doctor Moreau run amok and given grant money. The mega-selling Jurassic Park and its sequel tip their hat directly to Doyle, with that sequel's title.

And then there's Timeline, which Crichton certainly had to consider at least partially an homage to Wells' intensely odd signature work, The Time Machine.

Crichton's book involves his customary team of sexy graduate students (where does he find such contradictory creatures?), specialists in various aspects of medieval culture, all working on an archaeological dig centered at the ruins of the English stronghold Castelgard, in the Dordogne region of France. The team, led by a crusty, charismatic professor, includes the usual Crichton staples: a matching pair of feisty, stupid him-and-bimbos, a nerd, a saint, a strapping he-man, etc., and when irregularities appear in their dig-site, the crusty professor goes off to the headquarters of ITC (International Technology Corporation), the shadowy conglomerate that funds the dig, to get some answers. His students think of this as nothing more than the usual university politics and go about their careful reconstruction of Castelgard, in which one of them unearths a note, written on period parchment but in modern English, saying "HELP ME" (this is what I meant about killer zeitgeist moments, and Crichton had an eye for them).

The note is from their professor, yet it was indisputably written in Castelgard centuries before, and quick as you can say "exposition coming," our students are dealing with ITC themselves and hearing how it all happened: time travel. The professor is back in the past, and ITC wants his students to use their expert knowledge of the period to go back and get him out.

Somebody - I think it was Montaigne! - once said every era imagines the technology of the future in terms of the technology of the present. So in Wells' book, it's an actual machine, with gears and controls, that travels between times. By 1999, that approach clearly wouldn't do (unless you were the Doctor, that is), and so Crichton's characters don't pile into a steam-and-chrome jalopy - they attach themselves like email documents and hit SEND:

"Excuse me," Chris [the himbo] said. "Are you saying you compress a person?"

"No. We compress the information equivalent of a person."

"And how is that done?" Chris said [Dude! Have a brewski and chill!].

"With compression algorithms - methods to pack data on a computer, so they take up less space. Like JPEG and MPEG for visual material. Are you familiar with those?"

"I've got software that uses it, but that's it."

"Okay," Gordon [one of the scheming ITC guys] said. "All compression programs work the same way. They look for similarities in data. Suppose you have a picture of a rose, made up of a million pixels. Each pixel has a location and a color. That's three million pieces of information - a lot of data. But most of those pixels are going to be red, surrounded by other red pixels. So the program scans the pictures line by line, and sees whether adjacent pixels are the same color. If they are, it writes an instruction to the computer that says make this pixel red, and also the next fifty pixels gray. And so on. It doesn't store information for each individual point. It stores instructions for how to re-create the picture. And the data is cut to a tenth of what it was."

"Even so," Stern [the nerd] said, "you're not talking about a two-dimensional picture, you're talking about a three-dimensional living object, and its description requires so much data -"

"That you'd need massive parallel processing," Gordon said, nodding. "That's true."

Chris frowned. "Parallel processing is what?" [dude!]

"You hook several computers together and divide the job up among them, so it gets done faster. A big parallel-processing computer would have sixteen thousand processors hooked together. For a really big one, thirty-two thousand processors. We have thirty-two billion processors hooked together."

It's been ten years since Timeline was published, so probably some kid in Osaka has that much processing power on his phone by now, but the point is, minus a few limitations (and factoring in the wonderfully-named lurking danger Crichton dreamed up, 'transcription errors' - hee), our team can be sent back - almost faxed back - to the Castelgard of centuries ago, and the bulk of Timeline therefore paradoxically takes place in an era where there is no higher technology to speak of - a straight-up historical novel in which a few characters just happen to know what MTV is.

In the past-centered, er, timeline, Crichton uncorks breakneck plot twists, hairsbreadth escapes, vile villainy, lots and lots of derring-do, and even a very well-utilized countdown. Say what you will about the quality of the man's prose (as you can tell even from that brief excerpt, he manages the not inconsiderable feat of making Wells read like a literary giant), but when he stretches his legs on the level field of adventure-writing, you get your money's worth.

Timeline is partially soiled in the zeitgeist, I sometimes fear, by the fact that although the movie made of it was very entertaining in parts, it starred (and I mean relentlessly starred ... he's in virtually every scene) the worst actor in the history of film or theater. Of course I'm talking about that vacant-faced mannequin Paul Walker, who here pulls down the whole movie, even though it also stars Gerard Butler as the group's studly hero. The movie was directed by Richard Donner, so the action-sequences are slickly and perfectly done ... but in his attempt to get his actors to act like 'real people' he only manages to make them act like real boring people, so apart from its stunning visuals, the movie doesn't really duplicate the sordid fascinations of the book.

Or maybe it does - maybe those fascinations are the equivalent (the data equivalent?) of the movie's stunning visuals. The only way we'll know for certain is to get Brian over at Moving Picture Trash good and drunk, then have him review Timeline and sort it out.

But in the meantime, I can attest to the fact that Timeline is at least as entertaining as The Time Machine - so good, in fact, that in writing about it I was hardly tempted at all to go off on a furious tangent about State of Fear.


briankirker said...

I'll get right on it.

Timeline is one of the few Crichton's I haven't read. His books are easily disposable although, at the time I read it, I figured Congo had to be his masterpiece. I loved that book (and hated the movie just as much).

Kennen said...

"It's been ten years since Timeline was published, so probably some kid in Osaka has that much processing power on his phone by now,"


brian said...

fyi, Timeline is on its way to my home via Netflix. Not sure I'm excited to watch it.

Greg said...

Tim Curry was brilliant in Congo.

Jeffrey.Eaton said...

I recall (from 15 years ago) that a major plot point in Congo was that the scientists could communicate from deep in the jungle using their laptops via a satellite uplink, but that the bandwidth was so narrow they had to use text message-like shorthand to cut down on transmission delays. This, obviously, led to some important ambiguities and confusion.

However prescient Michael Crichton was to have written that in 1980, I just can't picture that aging well. It's like sci-fi from the age of Morse code dreaming about the day there would be a teletype machine.

TLB said...

This is great, but wow. I can't read this novel.

(I think what I want is to reread Airframe.)