The intriguing thing about Crichton's novels is that they each deal with dissimilar subjects. From searching for a lost city full of diamonds in Congo to following a male corporate executive through the trials and tribulations of a false sexual harassment claim in Disclosure to applying quantum theory to what many might construe as time travel in Timeline, Crichton is careful to avoid attracting labels such as those given to Tom Clancy—military techno thrillers, John Grisham—legal thrillers and Clive Cussler—history-based action adventure mystery. The bottom line on Crichton is that he is curious about a lot of subjects, willing to do the research necessary to become conversant in each subject and intellectually sharp enough to turn some of the driest of subjects into the springboard for mystery and adventure.
Timeline is a great study in Crichton's style, but most readers will never notice because it takes only five pages to get hooked on the story. The introduction is fascinating, if a little thick, because it sets up a sense of reality for the application of quantum theory to time travel. You will come away with the notion that Star Trek's "Beam me up, Scotty" teleporter has arrived in our world and time. The theory, much simplified, goes something like this: Computer technology is able to apply the approach used by fax machines to transport things and people; computers and fax machines each convert the material being transported into binary information (ones and zeros), which is converted back on the receiving end. It is this technology in the hands of a corporation named ITC that provides the real starting point of the story.
ITC is located in the New Mexico desert, where it has very quietly discovered a way to convert human beings into computer information that can be transported to another location where the information is reconverted into human beings. The current project focuses on sending humans to the past, which is, as near as I can translate, a parallel universe that exists alongside the present. Robert Doniger, ITC's president and founder, is a 38-year-old phenomenon who has a bad case of arrogance, insensitivity and egocentrism. His behavior is tolerated by many because he is wealthy beyond the ability of most to conceive and causes others to become wealthy as well.
The time-travel project does not really gain notoriety at any point in the novel. It spins off mysteries as a result of people who come back from time travel suffering from computer transcription errors just as documents received by a fax machine might be smeared or incomplete because of transmission errors. In the first pages of the novel, two unusually malformed ITC employees are found in the desert at separate locations but with similar medical problems. The medical problems lead to the inexplicable deaths of the two employees, raising the curiosity and concern of a policeman and a doctor from the hospital where the employees were taken for treatment.
Meanwhile, ITC has an archeological dig going on in France through a team of university scholars who are unaware of ITC's time-travel project. The team is headed up by Prof. Edward Johnston, who is charged with restoring the town of Castelgard and its surroundings in the Dordogne River Valley. ITC has undisclosed plans for the area after the restoration is complete and, in the beginning of the book, is trying to force the researchers to move faster in the restoration efforts. Prof. Johnston is summoned to New Mexico for a visit with Doniger where he cannot be reached by his research team in France. During an excavation, team members Andre Marek, Chris Hughes, David Stern and Kate Erickson find a lens from the professor's glasses and a note that says simply: "Help Me." The note is dated 4/7/1357.
They are required to go immediately to ITC's headquarters and are told that the professor has disappeared. They learn that ITC has transported him to the site of their dig in France. The catch is that he also was sent back in time to the 1300s, and it is here that ITC has lost track of him.
As Hughes, Stern, Erickson and Marek are sent to the same time and place to find him and bring him back, the adventure begins in earnest. They find a war going on, a beautiful damsel and evil knights, but no immediate sign of the professor. When they do locate him, the professor is being held by one of the leaders of a warring faction because he has established a reputation for knowing secrets that will be helpful in fighting the war.
The characters are fully developed early in the novel so that the reader very quickly has an interest in and an affinity with them. The descriptions of what is happening, the scenery, the emotions of the characters and the unfolding of the plot are carefully crafted. Crichton's transitions from place to place, time to time, character to character and subplot to subplot are not jarring or disjointed but flow naturally. The words fit together so well to create vivid images and suspenseful action that you probably will not realize how well the novel is written until you have finished much of the book and discover the reading is going too quickly. You will travel through the book in the blink of an eye if you don't slow down to savor the writer's style.
After all is said and done, I am not certain why the title is Timeline. The story moves back and forth between times present and past on nothing resembling a line. Perhaps the timeline is the connection between parallel universes of past and present. Interesting to ponder but unnecessary to the conclusion that the reader's timeline between the beginning and the end of the novel is too short but exciting.