December 1999

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Wormholes, Quantum Foam, Hollywood

by Charlie Onion

Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf
450 pp.
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Timeline, Michael Crichton's newest shot across the bow of renegade science, starts out deceptively slowly with a lengthy essay called "Introduction: Science at the End of the Century." Attentive readers are apt to study it closely, expecting significant facts to appear (though I'm not sure how many will pursue the scholarly texts to which Crichton refers in his footnotes). Readers with less patience may simply find their hopes for adventure turn cold in their hands: when, for God's sake, is the action going to start?

Not quite yet, actually. First, Crichton wants to tell us about quantum technology. It's all pretty dry stuff, and only at the end of the essay does a single little thread emerge, to draw us into the story proper:


In retrospect, it was a combination of peculiar circumstances--and considerable luck--that gave ITC the lead in a dramatic new technology. Although the company took the position that their discoveries were entirely benign, their so-called recovery expedition showed the dangers only too clearly. Two people died, one vanished, and another suffered serious injuries. Certainly, for the young graduate students who undertook the expedition, this new quantum technology, harbinger of the twenty-first century, proved anything but benign.

But we're not ready for the story quite yet. Another dense page follows, this one purporting to be an extended quote from what sounds like a dry history book--but is it real? Has the made-up stuff started yet? It's a neat trick, making us wonder like this, and it brings to mind the wonderfully playful games of Jorge Luis Borges (a writer one would not otherwise link to Crichton in the same sentence, of course). Another page is turned, and the reader finds, happily, that the next page is blessedly brief--two quotes, which together seem to sum up quite nicely what the previous pages went to some length to say: quantum mechanics isn't something you're ever going to understand. Turn the page andah, the story finally begins.


A married couple is driving through a long, empty stretch of Arizona desert when an old man appears on the side of the road. The husband glances down at the speedometer and immediately hears a thump. He swears he's only hit a pothole, but his wife insists that he has in fact struck the old man and that they must go back and check on him. Dutifully, the husband turns the car around. The old man is alive, but he's spouting what sounds like rhyming gibberish. And even more strangely, he's dressed in flowing robes and actually feels cool to the touch, even though the desert air is scorching hot.

While his wife tends to the man, the husband looks around, expecting to find the man's car. But there is nothing around them--and no sign of how the man got to that stretch of road. Somehow, it would seem, he's simply appeared from the middle of nowhere--into the middle of nowhere. The couple helps the man into their car, and they drive him to the nearest hospital. A local cop shows up and quickly clears them of any wrongdoing--there's no damage to the car, and the man doesn't appear to have been struck by a car. But there's something strange about the man: his fingertips are turning blue, as if he's suffering from frostbite. And, as the emergency room doctors find after examining his MRI, his arteries don't seem to be lining up quite right--it's as if he's been disassembled and reassembled incorrectly.

The man has no identification on his person, but the doctors find an architectural drawing in one of his pockets. While they mull over the man's strange symptoms and wait for results from a fingerprint check, he suddenly begins vomiting blood. They're unable to save the man's life, but the cop does get an identification off the fingerprints: the dead man is a respected physicist, employed byyes, that's right: ITC. The physicist, it would seem, had been secretly experimenting with quantum time travel and gotten his body 'misaligned.'


In the meantime, an ITC-funded archaeological site in France (it happens to be the site of the medieval monastery shown in the physicist's drawing) starts running into problems of its own. ITC's visiting vice president seems to know more about the site than the archaeologists do, and the site's director, a Yale professor, flies to New Mexico to question ITC officials. Days later, a lens from a modern pair of bifocals is found buried in a layer of medieval artifacts, and a note is found nearby:




Although the grad students at the site readily recognize the handwriting as the professor's, tests confirm its age to be at least six hundred years old.

Soon, another ITC vice president shows up, asking the grad students to help the company out with a little problem. The professor, it would seem, had gotten a demonstration of time travel, and he wandered away from the machine. Now, the VP says, they need four students who understand the Middle Ages--language, customs, etc.--to travel back and rescue the professor.

And if that's not a call to adventure, I don't know what is.


As usual, Crichton does a bang-up job with the science behind the book, and I must hasten to correct my characterization of the central plot device as 'time travel.' Crichton's grad students are actually space-traveling because, as one of ITC's vice presidents says, "Time travel is impossible. Everyone knows that."

They are, instead, using wormholes in the quantum foam to slip into a parallel universe. Or in the VP's formulation, ITC "uses quantum technology to manipulate an orthogonal mutiverse coordinate change." That is, with the aid of a massively powerful quantum computer, ITC scans and compresses an individual's data and "transmit[s] the electron stream through a quantum foam wormhole and reconstruct[s] it in another universe.It's not quantum teleportation. It's not particle entanglement. It's direct transmission to another universe." Technically, the person himself doesn't travel; only his "information equivalent" does. (The person himself dies, though his equivalent pops up nearly simultaneously in a parallel universe without feeling a thing.)

Sounds simple, right? But Crichton seems to brush over some complications. How do you know which parallel universe to aim for, since the world is budding off into new parallel universes at each moment of 'decision,' i.e., change? (Borges called this exponential explosion of parallel tracks the Garden of Forking Paths.) For that matter, isn't it really the case that the rescue-mission grad students are merely in the parallel universe that resulted from the professor deciding to enter another parallel universe? And thus they're also safely together--professor and the rest--in another, alternate universe's France, where the professor decided not to space-travel?

Of course, Crichton's after smaller fish than that sort of gaping conundrum. His abiding theme is much simpler and more earthbound: what, he wants to know, will happen if we don't reign in the stunningly dangerous combination of cutting-edge science and corporate greed? Will we find ourselves in a world-threatening crisis simply because it's profitable? Of course, it will, Crichton argues, because the greedy corporate leaders don't consider the ethical implications behind their efforts. Crichton's taken on this sort of thematic material before (the parallels to Jurassic Park are a bit unsettling, frankly), but his background research and smooth explication of quantum mechanics keeps Timeline from feeling old hat. And his historical research seems solid as well: the space-travelling grad students, most readers will probably agree, seem to caught up in a fairly realistic (if shockingly bloody) depiction of France in the fourteenth century.


His characters, though, fare less well--as usual. In book after book, screenplay after screenplay, Crichton has rather defiantly refused to make his characters even begin to approach what E.M. Forster called 'rounded'. They are, in fact, about as flat as characters can get. "In their purest form," Forster writes of flat characters in Aspects of the Novel, "they are constructed around a single idea or quality," and "[t]he really flat character can be expressed in a single sentence"--and this is precisely the problem Crichton's characters exhibit.

It's a simple trick, really, repeated ad nauseum. Crichton introduces a character with a few sentences of backstory (almost none of which is relevant; it's merely there as a place marker, I think) and then gives him an easily remembered (and vital, plot-wise) characteristic that will define him for the rest of the story. A few examples from Timeline: Marek the Middle Ages expert, Kate the rock climber, David Stern the computer geek. Each of them comes with a lengthier introductory story, but you really don't need to remember it. You just have to remember that one relevant trait. As Forster writes,


One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized when they come in--recognized by the emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name.It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with full force at once, and flat characters are very useful for him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere--little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.


Of course, Borges (there he is again) also famously rejected the nuances of the rounded character. But then again, he was interested in writing a different kind of story altogether. For Borges, flat characters meant revolution. (Think of the characters in the gauchos stories--in place of Crichton's single-trait Climber and Computer Geek, we get universal-theme characters like Honor and Treachery. Their stories, in Borges' terms, were straightforward, but never simple.)

For Crichton, flat characters seem merely to mean ease of use. Easy on the writer, easy on the reader--and easy on the screenwriter facing the challenge of translating the book to film. Is anyone surprised that the screen rights to Timeline have already been bought by Paramount?


Reading Timeline, you can't help thinking how fast the movie will be, if the screenwriter simply stays as close to the novel as possible. Eye-catching premise, short, crosscutting chapters, compressed time, breakneck pace, characters with a single, easily conveyed trait: Crichton probably comes as close to writing pure Hollywood films in the novel genre as you can get.

Of course, that's not necessarily a good thing, in some people's eyes--maybe even in Crichton's. After all, he set out to write more than a fun adventure book. Unfortunately, action won out over the warning bells, in the end. Ironically, I suspect the screenwriter will be most tempted to strip away some of the action in Timeline's final scenes because the crises the students face time after time start to feel alike, once the reader grows numb to their patterns. The serious drama, such as it is, should survive largely in tact.

And let's face it: it'll probably be a damn fun movie. Click here to find any book!


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