« Reading List: Metamorphosis | Main | Autodesk: Interview on AutoCAD Application Development »

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reading List: Timeline

Crichton, Michael. Timeline. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0345-46826-0.
Sometimes books, even those I'm sure I'll love, end up sitting on my bookshelf for a long time before I get to them. This novel, originally published in 1999, not only sat on my bookshelf for almost a decade, it went to Africa and back in 2001 before I finally opened it last week and predictably devoured it in a few days.

Crichton is a master storyteller, and this may be the best of the many of his books I've read. I frequently remark that Crichton's work often reads like a novelisation of a screenplay, where you can almost see the storyboards for each chapter as you read it, and that's certainly the case here. This story just begs to be made into a great movie. Regrettably, it was subsequently made into an awful one. So skip the movie and enjoy the book, which is superb.

There's a price of admission, which is accepting some high octane quantum flapdoodle which enables an eccentric billionaire (where would stories like this be without eccentric billionaires?) to secretly develop a time machine which can send people back to historical events, all toward the end of creating perfectly authentic theme parks on historical sites researched through time travel and reconstructed as tourist attractions. (I'm not sure that's the business plan I would come up with if I had a time machine, but it's the premise it takes to make the story work.)

But something goes wrong, and somebody finds himself trapped in 14th century France, and an intrepid band of historians must go back into that world to rescue their team leader. This sets the stage for adventures in the middle ages, based on the recent historical view that the period was not a Dark Age but rather a time of intellectual, technological, and cultural ferment. The story is both an adventurous romp and a story of personal growth which makes one ask the question, “In which epoch would I prosper best?”.

Aside from the necessary suspension of disbelief and speculation about life in the 14th century (about which there remain many uncertainties), there are a few goofs. For example, in the chapter titled “26:12:01” (you'll understand the significance when you read the book), one character discovers that once dark-adapted he can see well by starlight. “Probably because there was no air pollution, he thought. He remembered reading that in earlier centuries, people could see the planet Venus during the day as we can now see the moon. Of course, that had been impossible for hundreds of years.” Nonsense—at times near maximum elongation, anybody who has a reasonably clear sky and knows where to look can spot Venus in broad daylight. I've seen it on several occasions, including from the driveway of my house in Switzerland and 20 kilometres from downtown San Francisco. But none of these detract from the fact that this is a terrific tale which will keep you turning the pages until the very satisfying end.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The explanation for how the transmitted people are reassembled at the destination in the next to last chapter of the “Black Rock” section (these chapters have neither titles nor numbers) seems to me to miss a more clever approach which would not affect the story in any way (as the explanation never figures in subsequent events). Instead of invoking other histories in the multiverse which are able to reconstitute the time travellers (which raises all kinds of questions about identity and continuity of consciousness), why not simply argue that unitarity is preserved only across the multiverse as a whole, and that when the quantum state of the transmitted object is destroyed in this universe, it is necessarily reassembled intact in the destination universe, because failure to do so would violate unitarity and destroy the deterministic evolution of the wave function?

This is consistent with arguments for what happens to quantum states which fall into a black hole or wormhole (on the assumption that the interior is another universe in the multiverse), and also fits nicely with the David Deutsch's view of the multiverse and my own ideas toward a general theory of paranormal phenomena.

Spoilers end here.  

Posted at September 13, 2008 22:20