Tuesday, 4 May 2021

[Book review] Timeline by Michael Crichton

Timeline 
by Michael Crichton

Reading is like a second nature to DMs. Our hobby is rooted in the fantasy writings of the big past monsters like Tolkien, Howard, or Leiber...

But it's also good to read newer stuff... And timeline belongs to the good stuff category, in my opinion.


Beware, there are some spoilers in this review

About the Author

Michael Crichton is a well known Hollywood name... Quite a lot of his books have made it onto the screen (Jurassic being the most well known), and the reason for that is that his books sold well and were easily portable to the screen.
What he writes are page-turners and Timeline is not an exception

Movie?

As most of Crichton's best sellers, Timeline was adapted to the silver screen, and as research for this review, I've watched the movie. And I understand why the movie was not a blockbuster (to put it mildly 😄). Hollywood tends not to respect what makes a book great, and a lot of what made the book great was trampled on for marketing reasons. Historical accuracy apparently doesn't sell, and that was one of the book's greatest assets.
Timeline was apparently Crichton's first (and last) venture in adapting one of his books as a computer game. Wikipedia can tell you more on that failure 😇. I'm not a masochist enough to have inflicted the game onto myself for this review, though...

Story

A wealthy genius tech magnate (à la Elon Musk, but more of an arse) discover a way to travel through time. Something goes wrong. A group is sent into the past to rescue the precedent group.

While is does not sound particularly original, the story is always intriguing and compelling. The very short version I wrote does not do justice to the book, but i didn't wanted to spoil it for you...

The characters and their motivations are believable and relatable (at least the present day characters)

Science

It's been a characteristic of Crichton's writing to use scientific facts and extrapolate on them to create science-fiction. In this case, he extrapolates on quantum theories and quantum entanglement to explain time / dimension travel, thus creating a believable theory for time travel, with it's limits and risks.
I really liked that part and think it's much better than most theories you can see in RPGs (when those deem to even try to explain dimension/time travel).

Still, like the rest of the book, the explanations are really well written and easy to understand, without dumbing it down too much...

History

The majority of the book takes place in the southern France 14th Century, and Crichton did a lot of research to actually keep as much of historical accuracy as possible, using recent sources that depict the middle ages as a harsh time, but certainly not a time of darkness, bigotry, and ignorance as the Renaissance thinkers depicted it, an image that has long tradition in our commonly shared imagination.

The biography at the end of the book is 4 pages long, and there are a lot of good references there too (but I'm not an historian, so some might be bullshit and I couldn't say).

One thing that Crichton got really well in this book is how different people thought back then, and how society was structured. 

My opinion is that the historical accuracy is respected but not invasive. You won't get a lecture on the Three-field system or heraldry, but some of the repercussions on the life of those topics will be shown en passant (the ubiquity of horses is something we have to use in our games).

To me, this historical accuracy is the main appeal of this book, on top of the compelling story.

Style

The book is nearly a page-turner. I say nearly because it has more substance than your typical thriller that you will have forgotten in 6 weeks time.

The style is easy to read, yet not simplistic like a Da Vinci Code. The vocabulary used is also accessible, preferring to use common English than specific medieval terms (if a horse is a Percheron, it will be said once, and then called a draft horse)

Story

The story may not have been very original, still it was well rounded and balanced.
Let's say it was better than most easy fantasy novels on that side, because it never uses the "magic" artifact. The only "magic" is the quantum entanglement time travel.

There are actually 2 stories being told in parallel, one in the past (main story) and one in our modern day (the now of the characters - a side story), and both are interesting and intertwined.

The book has a very good rhythm, hence the "page-turner" denomination earlier on.

What's in it for roleplayers?

Well, the historical accuracy is very important, and can be reused in your fantasy game:

  • people in the past behave with another mindset - the mindset of the middle ages. Getting the mindset and not applying our "modern" way of thinking to people in the middle ages is for me one of the greatest challenges of fantasy roleplaying. Sure, you can describe a far-west-world with bows and arrows instead of guns (yes, i'm looking at you, D&D), but then you don't really need a pseudo feudal society, if the law of the strongest is gonna be your sole societal structure...
  • Horses, horses, horses. In all shapes and forms ! Everybody has a car, nowadays... Well most people needed more than one horse back then (transportation? Horse! Field-work? Workhorse! Battle? Warhorse! Cargo & logistics? Mules & Horses!). Everyone has to have a horse, and all these creatures are important to the survival of a family. They surely have names...
  • The feudal system does not oppress women completely (it's not kind to them, but they have rights... Widows in particular can be very powerful women) and you should not do that in your games either. Even though you might see it as historical, that's just a pretext to be a dick...
  • Danger was everywhere in the middle ages. Stuff like crossing a big river or falling from a horse could mean a life long injury. Life was cheap and short, and people started their "adult" life much earlier

Would I recommend it?

Yes, certainly. The book is MUCH better than the movie. Don't watch the movie, it's a loss of time and doesn't do justice to the book material. And it was better fantasy than most books I read in the past few years (I don't read a lot of fantasy, though)

Community

Did you read the book yourself? Leave a comment, i'd love to know what you thought of it !
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