Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

Crichton's background in science and medicine (he has a degree from Harvard medical school and worked as a medical researcher) has influenced his writing style to a great degree. His action and suspense novels are always based in scientific and technologic possibilities, earning him the title of master of the technothriller. He included a bibliography of his research in his first novel, The Andromeda Strain, as well as various graphics, charts and maps to aid the reader in understanding the medical jargon and setting the precedent for his future publications. By relying on research and facts to drive the narrative, Crichton avoids being criticized for his flat characters and generally uninteresting writing style. What he excels at is writing plots that combine action and pedantry to create exciting realism. He repeats this formula for success in Timeline. The reader knows only as much about the characters as is necessary to make their actions believable, but is given a crash course in quantum physics and medieval history.

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Many of Crichton's novels are technothrillers, novels set in the present or near future, the plots of which revolve around scientific or technological advances. The decision by Crichton's publicists to call his novels technothrillers in the book jackets was probably also influenced by a desire to avoid the stigma attached to the term science fiction. Of course, any novel involving time travel also falls into that category and so it is useful to compare Timeline to other science fiction novels. Authors often use the genre as a way to avoid censorship or to allegorize their vision. Often, readers who are blind to certain aspects of their own culture when presented with them directly will be able to recognize them in an unfamiliar or futuristic setting. Thus, one aspect of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898) is a commentary on England's fear of unchecked immigration, and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921) is a direct criticism of communist Russia, but neither novel mentions their respective subjects directly. Crichton takes advantage of this aspect of science fiction and uses Timeline in part to criticize American corporate culture today without directly attacking it.

As in Jurassic Park, Crichton bases his vision of the future on his personal research on the subject. In the case of Timeline, he familiarized himself with a number of popular and scholarly publications on quantum physics and is therefore able to describe time travel in plausible language, avoiding the common science fiction writer's syndrome of employing meaningless pseudoscientific terms that fool none but the most naive of readers. Crichton makes the reader believe that if scientists have not yet been able to master time travel, they soon will. His research on fourteenth century France is even more extensive (compare the seventy- one history related citations to the ten scientific ones), and Chris, Kate and Marek's experiences in the past will satisfy both the general public and the historian. Readers must beware, however, of taking Crichton's footnoted citations in the novel seriously. Although Alistair I. M. Rae's "Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality?" is listed in a footnote to the introduction, and the "typical episode of private warfare" account is similarly footnoted, he does not credit either author in the bibliography. Even more notably, "quotations" from Robert Doniger and Professor Johnston are mixed in with a quotation from Winston Churchill on the first page, blurring the line between research and fiction. Since Johnston and Doniger have net yet been introduced as characters, it is easy to mistake them for actual sources.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Timeline easily sparks many discussions about the role of technology and history in today's society. Science fiction writers always begin by asking the question, what if? What if time travel were possible in the future—what would the dangers be? What would the benefits be? Crichton's novel also asks readers to reevaluate their notions of what it means to be a scholar of history.

1. Robert Doniger makes the statement: ". . . it is an entirely benign and peaceful technology that will provide a great benefit to mankind." Discuss the accuracy of the statement. Is it possible for technology to be completely beneficial? You might consider the case of nuclear technology as well.

2. Notice that there is no mention of government intervention in Doniger's project. It is as if businesses operate in a world governed by separate rules. Does this make them a danger to the individual citizen? Discuss the dangers in corporate sponsorship of research and scholarly projects.

3. Discuss what Johnston means when he says that temporal provincials are like leaves that do not know they are part of a tree. Why is it so important to understand the past? How can it help us to foresee the future?

4. Crichton's characters are often criticized as being flat and having no interior personality. Discuss a) Chris Hughes' transition from pampered intellectual to man of action. Is it convincing? and b) compare Kate Erickson and Claire d'Eltham. Does Crichton portray them as convincing female characters?

Social Concerns

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In Timeline, Michael Crichton dramatizes the contemporary distrust of corporate funding of cultural and academic projects. In today's society where new mega-mergers are common headlines in the daily newspapers, sports stadiums are named after banks and large corporations purchase their own news networks, the business world often seems to overshadow the other aspects of our lives. Timeline begins with the cover-up of the death of an employee of International Technology Corporation (ITC), which means that from the very beginning its president, Robert Doniger, is pegged as an unscrupulous villain. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that the brilliant but unstable physicist has unlocked the secret of quantum travel. Doniger started ITC to investigate the possibility of building a quantum computer capable of transporting people and objects from the present to the past, and back again. He hides his research from both the cutthroat scientific community, and from journalists like Louise Delvert, whose attitude that "Capitalism is bad, all corporations are evil" impedes his path to fame and fortune at whatever the cost. Doniger wants to corner the market on time travel once the technology is perfected. His business plans include marketing "real live history" events to the general public, and building a perfectly accurate historic theme park in the Dordogne region of France based on research done with quantum travel. It sounds like an admirable task, but Doniger's true interest comes out when his researchers present him with video recordings of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address and George Washington crossing the Delaware. The images prove to be too realistic for Doniger, and he explodes: "I don't care about reality. I want something intriguing, something sexy. You're showing me a walking corpse and a drowned rat." He refuses to accept history as it is and decides to use only still photographs of Lincoln to avoid revealing his squeaky voice, and to use Photoshop to erase the wrinkles from Lincoln's face. Profit is more important than honesty. Profit is also more important than human life. Doniger puts lives in danger with unperfected technology, and he wants to change the past to make it more cinematic. This warping of the truth and lack of compassion in the name of money and fame strikes at America's fears of large monopolies trampling the individual and perverting culture and art. Doniger embodies all of the negative attributes of unchecked capitalism.

On the other hand, the characters that represent scholarship and culture get their share of criticism as well. Professor Johnston and his students are conducting an archeological dig in Dordogne. Their work, it turns out, is fully funded by ITC. Because Delvert stirs up suspicion in Professor Johnston, he visits ITC's headquarters in Arizona and demands to know the truth. Doniger, seeking to quell any further information leaks, tries to placate Johnston by allowing him to try quantum travel, but does not warn him of the dangers and Johnston ends up trapped in the past. Doniger then brings in Johnston's students, Andre Marek, Chris Hughes, Kate Erickson and David Stern, to go back to the past and rescue him. The historians, Andre, Chris and Kate, naively trust Doniger's claims that the technology is safe, but the scientist, David, is wary and chooses to stay behind. It all suggests that humanities scholars are too detached from reality to protect themselves from corporate scientists like Doniger, and Stern, who is a blend of both research scientist and historian, is the one who ultimately finds a way to bring them all back.

The common attitude of the public toward scholars is further explored in Timeline as well. Chris finds himself unsatisfied with Kate's stockbroker friends because, ". . . like many successful business people, they tended to treat academics as if they were slightly retarded, unable to function in the real world, to play the real games." In a society where money buys all, choosing to be a historian is, in a sense, choosing not to make millions of dollars. The stockbroker's attitude hits home with Chris because he is not able to function in the real world at this point. Marek, on the other hand, is comfortable with his place as an academic and more critical of Kate's friends: "He had a term for people like this: temporal provincials—people who were ignorant of the past and proud of it . . . convinced that the present was the only time that mattered, and that anything that had occurred earlier could be safely ignored."

Crichton's characters act out the rivalry between scholars and entrepreneurs. It is a battle waged on every university campus as funds are generally given to those disciplines that bring fame and more importantly, fortune, to the university at large and corporate donations often come with obligations to the donator. Thus, Johnston and his students are in a unique situation because their expedition is fully funded, and there is no piece of equipment that they cannot have. This is also why the minister of antiquities, Francios Bellin, and the journalist, Louise Delvert, are suspicious of Doniger. They cannot conceive of an American scientist and entrepreneur donating massive amounts of money to humanities research.

Although ultimately Doniger receives a fitting punishment for his cold-heartedness, and the historians return to the present unharmed, the novel closes with an image of foreboding: ". . . the rain had entirely stopped, but the clouds remained dark and heavy, hanging low over the distant hills." The immediate problem is solved, but the complex dangers of quantum travel remain on the horizon.

Literary Precedents

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Timeline marks a turn away from modern and postmodern novels of discontent and disorganization, and a return to classical Romanticism. The medieval European setting facilitates a return to the epic tale and the chivalric romance. Traditionally, the hero of the epic slays the enemy and dies valiantly, as in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The return to equilibrium is not quite complete because Marek stays behind and there are notes of regret as well as satisfaction with his decision to do so. The plot follows the typical disturbance of equilibrium at the beginning (Professor Johnston gets lost in the past), a chronicle of the struggle (Chris, Kate and Marek enter the past to retrieve Johnston), and finally a return to balance that concludes the novel (everyone returns to their proper time periods). Although ITC still exists and will still pursue research in quantum travel, Timeline closes with the positive view that now that ITC is under capable management no further dangerous mistakes will occur.

Crichton's knight of the Green Chapel section is a clear nod to the medieval tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ca. 1390). Crichton's Green Chapel is defended by "a huge man, nearly seven feet tall, and his armor . . . smeared with green mold . . .," basically a literal interpretation of the Green Knight. The original Gawain is an Arthurian romance which, according to prominent scholars in the field, focuses on the hero's personal growth in self-awareness as he journeys to meet and fight the Green Knight. In Gawain, the Green Knight issues his challenge to King Arthur, but Gawain accepts the challenge in his place. Similarly, Marek is the leader of the small group of twentieth century scholars, and the one with the most battle experience, but Chris is the one who fights the knight at the Green Chapel because the novel is about his journey to selfawareness.

Other time-travel narratives are worth examining in conjunction with Timeline, such as Tim Power's The Anubis Gates (1983), which has a very similar premise to Timeline. Brendan Doyle is a Samuel Taylor Coleridge scholar hired by a mysterious businessman, J. Cochran Darrow, to partake in a trial run of a new program his company has developed. Doyle is sent back to Victorian London for the unique opportunity of hearing Coleridge lecture in person. All goes well until he gets separated from the group and misses his chance to return. Like Professor Johnston and the others, Doyle must fend for himself. The idea of sending historians or other scholars back in time to do hands on research is not new then. Powers falls back on ancient Egyptian magic to enable his characters to travel in time, and although quantum physics is mentioned in trying to explain how it works, he on the whole avoids the technological specifics.

Adaptations

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Timeline is available as a book on tape from USA Random House Audio Publishing, Inc. Read by John Bedford Lloyd. Producer Robert Kessler. 15 hours, 9 cassettes, unabridged. 1999. Also available abridged on cassette and compact disc and a Random House Large Print edition and hardcover from Alfred A. Knopf.

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