Cover image of "Timeline," a time travel thriller

Time travel is impossible. Everyone knows that.” So says an executive of a company we know full well is engaged in time travel. He continues, “The very concept of time travel makes no sense, since time doesn’t flow. The fact that we think time passes is just an accident of our nervous systems—of the way things look to us. In reality, time doesn’t pass; we pass. Time itself is invariant. It just is. Therefore, past and future aren’t separate locations, the way New York and Paris are separate locations. And since the past isn’t a location, you can’t travel to it.” And this assumption lies at the heart of the convoluted explanation for what that company is doing in Michael Crichton’s 1999 time travel thriller, Timeline.

A journey to France’s medieval past

An irascible billionaire named Richard Doniger has built ITC, a high-tech company that has succeeded in constructing the world’s first working quantum computer. But he’s not using it to predict the weather more accurately or conduct genetic research at lightning speed. Instead, ITC has stumbled into what anyone else would call time travel. And the company is deploying it at the heart of new technology to investigate the history behind archaeological ruins around the world. Doniger is especially interested in two castles and a village in the Dordogne region of France. And it’s there that most of the action unfolds when he sends a team of history graduate students back to the year 1357 to rescue their professor.

Timeline by Michael Crichton (1999) 458 pages ★★★★☆

A medieval castle in France’s Dordogne region like those explored in this novel. Image: Historic European Castles

A cinematic time travel thriller

Michael Crichton made a name for himself—and a fortune—writing action-packed science fiction thrillers. You would be the rare American over 40 who hasn’t seen at least one of his novels on film. Jurassic Park is only the most famous of these. They work both on the page and on the big screen by building tension and suspense to an unbearable pitch by subjecting their protagonists to an unending series of life-threatening crises. Timeline is in no way different. Hollywood adapted it into a film in 2003 with an undistinguished cast. The production was almost universally panned.

Crichton obviously did a thorough job researching life in 14th-century France. His depiction of the endless violence that wracked Western Europe in the years following the Black Death jibes with everything else i’ve read about the period. As historical fiction, Timeline is well worth reading. Unfortunately, the novel suffers from the same flaws that undermined the film. The plot hangs on a fast-approaching deadline and a sequence of improbable action scenes that all too often end with a miraculous last-minute reprieve. The hard-to-believe technology involved works precisely as designed and with split-second timing. It’s all a prop for sword-fights and the siege of a medieval castle. If you like that sort of thing, you may enjoy reading Timeline. I found it tough going at times.

About the author

Photo of the late Michael Crichton, author of this time travel thriller
Michael Crichton. Image: Jon Chase – Harvard University News Office

Michael Crichton (1942-2008) sold more than 200 million copies of his 28 novels and five nonfiction books. He received an MD degree from Harvard Medical School in 1969 but turned immediately to writing. He never practiced medicine. His most successful novels were The Andromeda Strain (1969) and Jurassic Park (1990). Films based on the Jurassic Park novels were among more than a dozen produced, many of them box-office sensations. Crichton was six feet nine inches tall and towered over everyone ever photographed with him. He died of lymphoma in 2008.

For more reading

For another novelist’s take on time travel to the Middle Ages, see Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (A time-travel novel about the Black Death).

I’ve reviewed several excellent books about the Middle Ages, including:

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