Friday, September 17, 2010

Compulsory review of Timeline by Michael Crichton

One of books I read while in grad school was Timeline, by Michael Crichton. First, let me say that I've always been a big fan of Crichton - even "crappy" books like Sphere were vastly entertaining and I enjoyed the twists and turns. Timeline, on the other hand, was a facepalm (before we'd invented the word) from start to finish.
The Crichton hardcover edition
(for which I sadly doled out $20)
One thing I'm often asked (okay, I'm not, but it sounds better if I say that they do) is whether the activities of the "history" students in the book at all resembles actual historical study. Sadly, no. What I recall hearing from my colleagues at CU about the fictional college was "man, I wish I was in that program! Go dig up crap and do field research? Hell yes!" It really felt that Crichton confused archaeology and history. I mean, it would be great to be working in the actual sites where these things took place, but only in Wonderland would history students be conducting an archaeological dig. Why? Because they're not archaeologists. Now the Wikipedia article says that it's a combination of historians and archaeologists, but I don't ever recall that being clearly stated in the novel.
The novel did expose to me something that I found extremely interesting - the study of historical architecture. I've always been intrigued by how some structures and substructures came into being, where, and when, so that was a pleasant surprise. I think had I been able to continue pursuing my academic career that I may have had a focus in architectural history.
The rest of the book reads like a screenplay that had to be novelized so it could be optioned for a movie. The action sequences are straight out of a Hollywood movie (which it later became). Why they then had to novelize the movie was somewhat surprising as they'd already done that work in advance. (Yes, that was pretty caustic.) There is, of course, a joust and there happens to be an historian who's an excellent jouster (he's apparently toured with Ren Fairs all over the US before deciding to study history - not really, but you'd think so). It's all way too pat and dumbed down for American audiences.
On an aside, I've noticed that trend for some years, especially with the sad excuse for a film, No Point to Remakes of No Return. A close friend of mine does love him some Bridget Fonda, but he's also appreciative of the subtlety of French cinema. Point of No Return is a remake of La Femme Nikita, a brilliant movie about a girl who's trained to become an operative of the French government. The Fonda flick, unfortunately, wasn't okay with ambiguity or slowly building tension. In Nikita, there's a scene where Nikita is called in to deliver a tray with a variety of listening devices (and perhaps more) to a room containing some not-so-nice men. She delivers the tray and is dismissed - no explanation; her job is done and she leaves. She never really knows what happens. In No Point to Remakes (my friend's relabeling, but it's apropos) she delivers the same tray service and then leaves. But on her way out, the entire top floor of the building EXPLODES! SHE WAS CARRYING A BOMB! *facepalm* Yeah - not so much for the subtlety. Wait - did Uwe Boll direct that one? Anyway, back to the story (yes, pun intended) at hand.
I would like to say that Timeline is a good read, but it's not. It's a fun read, but only if you're willing to suspend your disbelief all the way to the moon. It's terribly contrived, terribly executed, and predictably finished. It all gets wrapped up with a nice bow at the end and we can all leave the theatre put the book down with a satisfied grin. I liked the earlier Crichton work a lot better and I liked the science in this one, but from an historian's perspective, it came up WAY flat.

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