THE ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE
by Joe Haldeman
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Joe Haldeman’s latest novel, The Accidental Time Machine focuses on Matt Fuller, a researcher at MIT, who discovers time travel when he creates a machine which should only calibrates lab equipment. Instead, the machine flickers and, using scientific methodology, Fuller determines it traveled into the future. Further experimentation allows him to make educated guesses about its behavior.
The novel tracks Fuller’s journey into the far future, beginning with incremental steps when he finds himself in the near enough future that he can still find people he knows, until he reaches a point when the world is foreign to him and he just hopes to be able to find a period where the invention of a time machine that will send him back to his native 2050 is a possibility.
The Accidental Time Machine has a similar vibe to Haldeman’s classic Forever War. Both novels feature a protagonist who finds himself jumping forward from his own future, unable to return. However there is a difference between the two novels, partly in the characters’ goals. William Mandella is actively fighting in a war against the Taurans while Fuller’s journey through time is more random and purposeless. However, both characters share a sense of isolation from the societies in which they find themselves.
One of the more intriguing ideas that Haldeman follows up with is the cyclical nature of history. With each of Fuller’s jumps through time taking him exponentially further into the future, he finds himself in a theocracy relatively close to his own time. On subsequent jumps to a more secular time and place, he finds himself more simpatico with the natives, despite the much larger chronological difference.
The book does have one narrative weakness that threatens to break the suspension of disbelief. The inventor (or thief) of the only known functional time machine, Fuller achieves a fame (or notoriety) which seems out of proportion to his activities, especially since nobody was able to reproduce the machine. When he arrives in the far future, his story is still known, even though millennia have passed. Necessary, perhaps, for the story, but not particularly realistic.
Haldeman introduces an apparent cause and effect paradox that reassures Fuller that he’ll eventually return to his own time. It also offers foreshadowing for the reader, although in the end, Haldeman does not depict the action as either Fuller or the reader expects, not only making that paradox’s resolution into a surprise, but offering up a few other surprises as well.
The Accidental Time Machine, as many of Haldeman’s works, is written in a style which eschews stylistic extravagance. While many authors attempt innovative writing styles which all too often hinder the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of the action, Haldeman writes in a straight-forward manner that allows the reader to most fully appreciate Haldeman’s plot, characters, and themes.
Haldeman’s futures don’t appear to be that different from visions of the future science fiction is already familiar with. At the same time, while his theocracy seems a trifle clichéd, he does try to bring new ideas to his version of that future, as well as others with a modicum of success.
In some ways, The Accidental Time Machine is a throwback to an earlier style of science fiction, but in a nostalgic, yet fresh way. Haldeman’s writing is better than most of the stories written forty or fifty years ago, which elevates the novel above the stories it sometimes seems to be channeling.
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