Crichton's latest thriller: Forsooth, milords, miladies

On Books

November 21, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

A new techno-thriller by Michael Crichton is always a supercharged commercial publishing event in the American book industry. Along with a tiny handful of others -- mostly women who also manufacture trademark-formula fiction forms with the clockwork of Henry Ford's first assembly line -- Crichton cranks out guaranteed megasellers.

The latest Crichton was launched last week with full-page newspaper ads and the squealing of hundreds of 18-wheelers' tires: The publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, puffed that the first hardcover printing is 1.5 million copies.

The finished book, firmly compressed, is 1.5 inches thick. If you arrayed that first printing on a continual shelf, by my arithmetic, it would be 36 miles long.

Unless affection for innocent trees moves you more deeply than empathy for people stranded in airports, "Timeline" (Knopf, 450 pages, $26.95) is harmless enough. But it raises, in my mind at least, a question of what this sort of novelistic industrial enterprise is all about.

There is a crisp veneer of sophistication and verisimilitude -- a heady cocktail, if gulped. Crichton's introduction is complete with scholarly footnotes suggesting the importance to the future -- immediate and long-term -- of quantum mechanics.

Quantum which? Suffice it to say that the phenomenon, or Crichton's gloss of it, suggests that alternate universes are a natural part of the structure of everything -- altogether called "the multiverse." This becomes the basis for entrepreneurial time and space travel: "Beam me up, Scotty" stuff.

Quickly, Crichton establishes two separate lines: Archaeological digs and restoration plans at a medieval site in Aquitaine on one hand and beyond-the-state-of-the-art engineering deep in the American West on the other. Twentieth century medieval scholars and staff are teletransported to the year 1357, in what is now southwest France.

Setting aside questions of where the science ends and the fiction commences, the book's early primer on quantum theory in physics and mathematics is quite splendid -- brisk, clear and rendered truly interesting. Other early material provides a quite impressive thumbnail survey of the High Middle Ages, the 1300s. A five-page bibliography cites about 100 reference books and scholarly papers. The man seems to work hard.

The early narrative is clean, brisk. Plot-building road signs are posted neatly. Dialogue runs rhythmically. A foundation is built, rock by rock: A mysterious death. Science beyond the reach of medical doctors' comprehension. A cruel, heartless CEO. A mysterious high-tech startup firm. Masses of technocrats and ex-Green Beret types scurrying around like ants, doing vaguely menacing tasks. Lots of cameos and set-pieces that you just know will end up as Significant -- and probably Sinister.

The story becomes a sort of shuttlecock game between medieval times and the present. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong.Of course, the superscientists are sinister -- and the more super, the more sinister. Of course, the esteemed historians of medieval history are romantic souls, and the more esteemed, the more romantic.

The entrepreneurial science types brim with cynicism; the field-tested academic Good Guys runneth over with indomitable integrity and varying degrees of vulnerability. Bad Guys seem invulnerable. Except at the end.

At least that's what happlens when Justice Is Done. Is it, in "Timeline"?

Aw, c'mon, that would be giving it away.

Once the medieval element of the action is set in motion, the narrative dives distressingly into Launcelot legerdemain. Begun in fine, clipped, effective prose, it crashes to the ground in the 14th century. There, the story writhes amid a half-dozen language forms (blessedly made clear by electronic translating earpieces) and lots of architectural detail, military technology and more, more, more.

Not long after our intrepid time-travelers arrive in the past, a "forsooth" sneaks in, and then an "I am wrothe!" and then an "I am sore wrothe!" Knights and lords and squires, rogues, knaves and distressed damsels begin to drift among cliches more shopworn that a second feature from a 1940s Saturday matinee.

And so, for all the fuss, footnotes and bibliographies, the book tumbles, just past midway, from a promising thriller novel into an unintentional comic burlesque of a medieval broadsword-and-codpiece B movie. The historians clatter along, blood-drenched and trapped in a sort of Tom-and-Jerry-in-the-catacombs, flailing with swords and snicking with daggers amid showers of arrows.

The novel's breakup was disappointing. I was predisposed to be delighted. I loved Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain," and "The Great Train Robbery." I was impressed by the serious side of "Jurassic Park" as well as by its keen entertainment -- who could not be? He has written some very respectable nonfiction, all testimony to a good working mind.

I was not expecting Tolstoy, but this book is devoid of substance or meaning. Crichton makes no visible attempt to bring entertain any of the potentials of irony or character or real historic complexity that give even mild commercial novels muscle. Must industrial-product fiction be so utterly hollow in order to prosper? Prithee, no. But what do I know?

"Timeline" will be a movie, of course. That is pre-ordained. And it will make money -- lots and lots of it. But it is a sad an appalling shame that Crichton did not -- or could not -- bring to it the redeeming qualities of fine storytelling and gripping idea-play that distinguished much of his earlier work.

Pub Date: 11/21/99

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