Thursday, July 22, 2010

BOOKS: The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

Blank out the author's name and the title. Change all character and place names to generic names. Now let me see the manuscript. If Joe Haldeman wrote it, I can spot it. I'm HAPPY to say I can spot it. Case in point, The Accidental Time Machine.

I read MOST of The Accidental Time Machine in the waiting room of my doctor's office over the course of two visits. It's a smooth, quick read and a smooth, quick ride through what could pass as the history of the next bazillion years. Albeit in a slightly different dimension than ours. Close, but different.

Haldeman wrote the seminal Forever War and the two volumes that followed it (but weren't quite as good). The more-or-less same plot was featured in that book. A war fought through space and time, especially time. Travel meant not only leaving your loved ones behind, but your own era, as the time dilation required to travel and fight the good fight meant years, centuries, millennia passed for the people at home who said good-bye to the soldiers.

The Accidental Time Machine only has one lonely mother to really feel the loss of hero, Matt Fuller. Fuller is, more or less, a screw up. He's working in a lab, because it can occupy his brain. Otherwise, his life is a mess. His girlfriend has ditched him. He's a flunky, but is waaaay smarter than anybody else he does business with. But he can't seem to get things together.

One day, he accidentally invents time travel. Haldeman is a master at describing the mechanism without dispelling the magic with any science that's obviously wrong. It's a 'magical combination' of a number of things that manage to produce demonstrable time travel. With nothing tying him to right now (albeit a slightly futurized right now), Fuller opts to become a temporal traveller.

So, off we go on a joy trip to virtually the end of time itself. Fuller is on a one-way trip with each jump outdoing its predecessor by an increasing number of years. His first 'public' jump is done in a flashy car, wearing a scuba suit. (it makes sense at the time). By the time he's two more jumps past, he's a celebrity and his arrival is expected. Two more jumps and he's a mythologized figure at the base of a religion. Two more jumps and he's forgotten, as is most of what passes for knowledge. Still later, he's in outer space looking at a world decimated by mankind's misuse, and is now just a big game preserve for the life that follows Man.

All of this is conjecture on Haldeman's part. Entertaining, and probably well-researched. But just conjecture. The REAL issue with Haldeman is whether you feel he's obligated to return the time traveller(s) to their current era to examine their ability to re-relate to their once common folk and friends.

The lack of that 'truly coming home' aspect is something that I think makes Haldeman distinctive and interesting. He combines distopia's and utopia's, sometimes even in consecutive chapters.

All that thought-provoking helps keep the mind off what you are truly doing in a doctor's waiting room. Waiting for the doctor.

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