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Onyx reviews: Timeline by Michael Crichton

In Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton took what was meant for the past and made it alive in the present. In "Timeline," he reverses this, with equally gripping results.

The enigmatic ITC corporation sits in a secluded part of the New Mexico desert, supposedly researching new high-powered magnets for use in medical MRI equipment. This is a cover for their real work: ITC has discovered how to traverse the "multiverse," the sum of all possible universes and times. In effect, they have discovered time travel.

Their research is a closely guarded secret. As in Jurassic Park, ITC plans to commercialize its discovery by setting up theme parks with completely accurate recreations of historical settings, situated at the original locations. ITC is buying up vast amounts of land around the proposed sites, designated for hotels, shops and other profit centers.

ITC has been funding archaeological research at the sites. Professor Edward Johnston leads one of these digs in the Dordogne region of France. The castles, monastery and villages in this area were the center of important battles during the Hundred Years War. Johnston is suspicious of ITC's ulterior motives and confronts the owner, multi-billionaire Robert Doniger. Doniger reveals the company's secrets to Johnston, who accidentally becomes trapped in the year 1357.

Johnston sends a message through time to his group at the archeological dig. They are perplexed to find a request for help in his handwriting among a newly discovered stack of ancient parchments, written in 650-year-old ink.

ITC flies the top researchers from Johnston's group back to New Mexico. These four, a physicist, a student of science history, a medieval language and combat specialist, and an architecture student, know the setting better than anyone else. They are recruited to go back and rescue the professor.

As historians, they all leap at the opportunity to explore the place and time that they have been researching. However, their knowledge of the era is strictly academic. They are not completely prepared for what they find.

To add to the tension, the group has a strict time limit. If they do not return within 37 hours, their time-machines will run out of power, stranding them. Chapter headings count down the hours left before they run out of time.

The group is also not privy to the fact that ITC's experiments have shown that every transportation carries the risk of "transcription errors." The time-travel technology is similar in theory to a FAX transmission and occasional glitches can cause the person to be imperfectly reconstructed at the other end.

What follows is a swashbuckling adventure in which the characters are forced to put their learning to the test. The 1300's are dangerous times. Life is cheap, and blood runs thick in the land as wars rage on around them and the schism between the privileged and the poor causes everyone to live by violence.

In parallel, the workers at ITC are scrambling to repair problems which may prevent the group from being able to safely return to the present.

Crichton's prose and characterization are simple and unadorned. They never get in the way of the fast-paced and ingenious plot. Occasionally, however, his expository passages bring the action to a sudden halt, as a character spends a page or two describing in detail the science or history of what is happening. Some readers may find these sections to be unnecessary intrusions in the plot, while others will come away from the novel feeling that they have not only been entertained but also educated.

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