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Monday, August 6, 2007

"The Accidental Time Machine" by Joe Haldeman

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As far back as I can remember time travel has been used as a plot device in everything from literature (H.G. Well’sThe Time Machine”, Ray Bradbury’sA Sound of Thunder”, Michael Crichton’sTimeline”) to movies (the Terminator franchise, Back To the Future, Timecop), to television (Doctor Who, Quantum Leap), videogames (Chrono Trigger, Legacy of Kain, Prince of Persia), comic books, and so forth. During that time I thought I had seen pretty much every variation there was on the topic, but leave it to someone like Joe Haldeman—multiple award-winning (five Hugos, five Nebulas, a John W. Campbell Award, a World Fantasy Award, etc.) author of science fiction for more than thirty years—to add a new wrinkle or two.

The Accidental Time Machine”, as the title suggests, is about a time machine that was ‘accidentally’ created by MIT research assistant Matt Fuller. How the machine actually works is touched upon only briefly—something to do with gravitons/photons, five-dimensional membranes, etc. All we really need to know is that the machine only goes forward in time, that it will only take items enclosed in a metal ‘faraday cage’, and that each successive jump is around twelve times longer than the previous one. In other words, the first few jumps into the future are only seconds long, but extrapolate the numbers out and you have the following: 34 minutes, 6h 48m, 3.34 days, 39.54 d., 465 d., 15 years, 177.5 y., 2094 y. and so on.

While the scientific principles behind the machine are pretty interesting, it’s the human elements that define “The Accidental Time Machine”. After all, who could resist using a time machine, especially someone like Matt whose life was going nowhere—dumped by his girlfriend for a former student, job lost to that same ex-student, no social life, an exasperating mother, should I go on? As one might expect, the temptation is just too great for Matt, but the consequences end up being even greater, and what started out as an experiment to prove the existence of time travel—with visions of winning a Nobel Prize dancing in his head—becomes a race against the future as Matt tries to find a way back to his time period to try and make things right. Whether or not our hero accomplishes that goal is just one of the book’s major questions, but more importantly is the journey itself, which might just teach Matt a thing or two about love, knowledge and what it means to truly live…

As far as time travel stories go, “The Accidental Time Machine” doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but Joe Haldeman comes up with enough unique trappings to make the book stand out on its own. For one, the novel starts out in the year 2058, making it a little bit more plausible that a time machine could be created in the first place. Secondly, I really liked how the machine would only jump forward in time, and in increasing intervals, which offered some intriguing dilemmas throughout the book. Thirdly, some of the future Earths that we get to visit are quite a sight, particularly one where a reborn Jesus walks the land and technology is banned; and another where everyone is born rich, governed by artificial intelligences. I do wish that we might have explored some of these futures in greater detail, but that’s just me nitpicking ;) Writing-wise, Joe Haldeman is an old hand, so no complaints from me—the story is concise, fast-paced and thrilling; the characters well-developed and likable; the plot is easy to follow, but will make you think; and the overall tone of the book is actually pretty humorous, almost satirical. In short, “The Accidental Time Machine” is a fun and engaging science fiction treat that is vintage Joe Haldeman—in other words, another gem from one of the masters of the genre…

2 comments:

Tia said...

I love time machine stories, but mostly I've seen them in the movies. I do enjoy the unique plot twists that you can get with time travel, the whole concept of paradoxes and such. It's really a mind trip. Thanks for pointing this one out.

Robert said...

No problem. The book definitely sounds like it might be up your alley. Be sure to check out that excerpt I posted from the book...

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