A Conversation with Michael Crichton, author of TIMELINE
Q: What is Timeline about?
A: It's an adventure story about three young historians who use new technology to travel to the medieval period, to assist a friend. The story tells of their experiences in a distant world that they have studied, but discover they do not really know.
Q: What does the title Timeline suggest?
A: Timeline here has its ordinary meaning: "the progressive course of events over time" (i.e., "the timeline of a disaster").
Q: Timeline, like many of your novels, deals with cutting edge technology. Tell us a little about the technologies in Timeline and their present day applications.
A: Timeline deals with quantum technology, a field only a few years old. First proposed by the physicist Richard Feynman in 1981, quantum technology has been actively researched only since the early 1990s. It is an attempt to make practical use of the so-called quantum characteristics of matter. Which takes some explaining.
We all live cheerfully in our everyday world (the world of trains, planes and automobiles) which is described by classical physics, essentially the physics of Isaac Newton. We all have an intuitive sense of how our world works. So it is a little startling to learn that at smaller dimensions, at the level of a single atom or the components of the atom, things don't work the same way at all.
Physicists have known for almost a century that there is a difference between the macro and micro worlds. The features of the subatomic world are not noticeable at the level of daily events in the world we live in, but they are there all the same. Now there is an attempt to make a technology from the subatomic features. These features are very odd, and so is the "quantum technology" that is starting to emerge. I talk about some of them in the book. The most powerful computer in the world can be made from a single atom. Information can be transported instantly across millions of miles (even across the universe) without any connecting wires or network. (This is "quantum teleportation," demonstrated in three laboratories around the world last year.) You can send information in such a way that it will tell if somebody is tapping into your data lines during transmission. You can find something without looking for it. You can examine a remote object without looking at it. And on and on. This strange technology will come into its own in the 21st century, which is why I chose to write about it.
In Timeline, I tried to capture the experience of technologists at the turn of every century: they don't know what is coming, but they know it will overturn the past. We take for granted so many technological miracles that it was hard to imagine what the twenty-first century would find jolting and unexpected. Time travel was my choice. If it's not that, it'll be something more bizarre.
Q: Do the applied sciences in the book mirror reality?
A: No (at least, not at the moment).
Q: History, and historical event, are crucial plot elements in Timeline. How did you settle on medieval history as a point of departure for the book?
A: Most of my books start with a question. In Timeline, I wanted to write about a period in history, the most popularly "familiar" period I could think of: the era of chivalry. Knights in armor are such a clichˇ today that nobody really thinks about them in any serious way; nobody considers their reality.
Particularly in the last hundred years or so, popular culture has treated knights either as as mythical folk figures (King Arthur and Robin Hood), as a joke (Connecticut Yankee), or as a symbol of outmoded values (Don Quixote). Yet the knight was actually part of a well-defined world that lasted for several hundred years, much longer than the United States has been in existence. What was their world really like, as opposed to the clichˇd images that have evolved? What was knighthood really like? What were battles like in those days, and castles, and towns? What was childhood like, and what was the position of women?
That was how I began my research, and the answers I got surprised me.
Q: How did you research Timeline, and how accurate are your portrayals of the people, places and customs of medieval times?
A: The research here was no different from my other books, except that there was more reading to do, and fewer field trips. When I started, I didn't have much background in medieval European history (to put it mildly). And fiction demands detailed, rather mundane information of the kind that isn't found in most history books. I mean people's daily routines, food, clothing. Finding this information took me a long time. My intention was to make an historically accurate setting, so I had my work cut out for me.
Q: One of the hallmarks of a Michael Crichton novel is prodigious research, the result of which is often an education for the reader. Is this something that you set out to do (educate as well as entertain)?
A: Because I begin with a question, my research educates me. I suppose it's inevitable that the reader will be educated, too, by what I end up writing. But I don't set out to educate anybody. I'm just telling stories. The stories usually require some background information, so I explain the background, to make the story understandable. That's all.
Q: Several young historians in Timeline discover (the hard way) that some of their period research is incorrect. Is this a narrative device, or are you suggesting that many of our assumptions about history are questionable?
A: Historians generally agree that all history is contemporary history. That is, every generation remakes the past into some form that suits the present time. But this means that all our understanding of history, like all our understanding of science, is provisional. It's likely to change. It does change.
Q: In Timeline, you also seem to be suggesting that ignorance, or at least indifference, about the past is dangerous. How so?
A: "Those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it."
Q: In Timeline, there is a sense of supreme arrogance about the present. What are some of the risks to a society that remains so arrogant?
A: It is the conceit of every generation that it has pushed aside the weight of history to be living in a present time so unprecedented that the past no longer matters. We have seen this kind of thinking with the rise of the Internet: a whole new world, we are told, with new rules and new opportunities, and nothing like it ever before. Unprecedented. New, new, new. History doesn't count.
Of course, if you believe that, you are a fool. These claims for new technology are obvious nonsense if you know a little history. If you don't, then every new incident in the world smacks you freshly in the face, and you can indeed become excited about something that does not deserve so much of your attention, or your respect. In the case of the Internet, a historical perspective would compare present claims to past claims that have been made for emerging new technologies, such as television, or radio, or automobiles. Television, for example, was going to give us a new world of a wonderfully informed public and David Sarnoff predicted that television's dramas would raise the taste of the public. We now understand clearly that the reverse is true; television is a pipeline for the crudest sort of distortion and misinformation, and it has lowered popular taste to a level that even its worst detractors could not have predicted.
But the general point is this: if you don't understand that it's all happened before, and it hasn't turned out as wonderfully as they said it would, then you're deluded by your own ignorance. And that ignorance can certainly be dangerous.
These days, we hear that the US stock market will never go down again, that the economy has fundamentally changed. That's what they said in Japan, in 1990. I'm not saying the market will crash. I'm just saying, remember that it has in the past. Remember that other people were convinced of what you are now convinced of, and they were wrong. That's what history does for you.
So at the very least, an historical perspective gives you some balance, and a way to appraise the new things that constantly come into our society. It gives you a healthy skepticism which I consider the humanistic equivalent of scientific doubt. It's good to have that skepticism. A consideration of history is the only way to get it.
Q: Timeline, in addition to several of your other novels, features an uneasy alliance between business and science. Do you have reservations about the corrupting influence of money on pure scientific endeavor?
A: Not exactly. I have some reservations about the extent to which pure science has, over the years, moved out of government-funded university laboratories and into private laboratories. That trend has had some benefits, but I'm a great believer in balance, and I think the present balance between public and private research is not healthy. I'd like to see more government support of all science, and particularly more funding of pure science. The U.S. has enjoyed remarkable prosperity in recent years, yet government funding of science has declined steadily. To the extent that funding scientific research is an investment in the future, I think we're being unwise. We didn't act this way in the past.
Q: One of the characters in Timeline calls "constant, ceaseless entertainment" the defining characteristic of the twentieth century. Would you agree with this assessment? And is this a good or bad thing (and why)?
A: It is a remarkable development in my lifetime that people have come to expect and want to be entertained for more and more of their lives. Previously, entertainment had clear limits. You went to a sports game, or to a movie, or a theatrical event, and there you were briefly entertained. Afterward you returned to your regular life, which was not expected to be entertaining. Your life might be passionate, it might be committed, it might be compelling and engaging, exciting and arousing, but it was not imagined to be "entertaining." Because entertaining is something that is done to you, or for you, by another.
Now, entertainment has become a defining metaphor for all kinds of activities. Restaurants are supposed to be entertaining, and often have "themes." Schools are supposed to be entertaining. Media is supposed to entertain, more than to inform. Even self-improvement courses and therapies are often supposed to entertain. Nearly everything in society is judged by whether or not it is entertaining.
Of course, all this entertaining creates anxiety. How fragile are we, that we cannot be alone, that we must have the tube on for company, that music must play in our rooms and earphones, that when we turn to TV we flick aimlessly from one channel to the next, "looking for something good." You'd think this endless flicking would tell us something, but it never seems to. And as we accelerate the pace of our lives, we no longer have time to experience our own lives, so that entertainment becomes a numbing relief. But as the acceleration continues further, we no longer have time to experience our entertainment either. Two hours in a movie theater is too long; we don't need to see the movie, we can just talk about it. Its stars, its reviews, its grosses.
There was a time, not so long ago, when audiences focused on the work, putting the artist (and his/her faults) in the background. Now, everything is inverted. Reared on a steady diet of media gossip, we have come to think it is a normal focus of attention; we are desperate to know gossip about an artist's life, or about the behind-the-scenes making of a film, we want to know escapades and lovers and lawsuits and fighting and drinking, and we can hardly be bothered with the work itself. The only value to the work is that it generates the gossip, which is what we now find entertaining.
My own view is that we do a disservice to ourselves to imagine that we cannot survive without the constant flow of distractions. In fact, children enjoy learning and the acquisition of knowledge is its own reward. It does not have to be hip and fun. Kids mistrust hip and fun teaching, as they should. I think adults do, too. Sooner or later, all this entertainment will in its franticness melt away, like the witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Q: All right then, the question on everyone's mind: is time travel, or parallel universe travel, as described in Timeline, possible?
A: Is time travel possible? The most accurate answer is that nobody knows. Over the years, various scientists have raised theoretical objections to time travel, but none have held up. Right now, there are scientists who believe time travel is possible, and even technologically feasible. Others believe it is not possible. In truth, at the moment it is just a matter of opinion. Nobody knows.
Q: If the technologies in Timeline were available to you on a one-time only, guaranteed safe return basis, what time and place would you travel to?
A: I'd go back to Greece and record the complete works of the philosopher Heraclitus, who is known to us now only by a few dozen fragmentary sayings.
Q: Who are some of the writers you feel have been good at predicting the future? Are there books you can suggest that have withstood the test of time?
A: Let's be frank. Nobody is good at predicting the future. On the contrary, writers and futurists alike are invariably awful. Even writers who get their hands on one piece of the future (Verne, for example, certainly had a sense of the mechanical future) fail to get the rest. They miss the tone of the times, or the feel of the social structure.
Of all the so-called "futurists," the most successful (based on track record) is one of the most vilified: Hermann Kahn, the man who served as the model for Dr. Strangelove. Kahn's book, written in the 1960s, Toward the Year 2000, was remarkable for predicting everything from the rise of the Japanese economy to the rise of the fitness craze to the vogue for spirituality. A remarkable piece of work.
Q: We are on the cusp of the millennium, and predictions about the future are at a fever pitch. Are there any predictions you care to make? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about science and society in the next millennium?
A: I have no idea what is to come. I'm optimistic by nature. I can't explain why. It now seems clear that global warming is indeed taking place; biotechnology is a stunning potential hazard both from industry and from terrorists; the world is filled with dangerous inequities, people are as vain and foolish as ever, and no end of calamitiesare in sight. But I'm optimistic. I suppose you could call it a personal failing. On the other hand, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I've seen a lot of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass.