Sunday, January 11, 2009
Book Review: The Accidental Time Machine
Author: Joe Haldeman Paperback: 288 pages Publisher: Ace; Reprint edition (July 29, 2008) ISBN-10: 0441016162 ISBN-13: 978-0441016167 Surprise. I normally review books on actual and not fictional technology, but I came across the hardcopy version of this book at my local library and, having not read a Haldeman novel in a couple of decades, decided to revisit science fiction as one might revisit an old girlfriend. I wanted to see how much my interest in the genre and specifically Haldeman's writing, had held up over time. I'm also kind of a sucker for time travel stories. It is a page turner. I reserved the novel as something to "wind down" with before going to bed and there were a few nights when I pushed my "reasonable consciousness" envelope by reading longer than I had intended. The beginning of the book introduces a mystery discovered by protagonist Matt Fuller, an MIT graduate student in the more or less near future. Watching Matt try to figure out how a simple piece of lab equipment he'd built had somehow developed the ability to move forward in time was a definite hook for me. He's a bright, but not brilliant underachiever who's given the opportunity for "greatness", but only if he keeps his discovery a secret. This means he must go the way of so many other "mad scientists" by using himself as the primary experimental subject. Each push of the button sends Matt further into the future in a geometric progression and Matt ends up about 15 years into his own future feeling more useless than in his own time. Hailed as a glorified lab rat and with his Professor taking all the credit for discovering this method of time travel, Matt eventually escapes the dead end of this existence by "stealing" the time machine (it was MIT property after all) and continuing to launch himself further forward in time. Unfortunately, once Matt leaves a future history that's any where near familiar to him (or the reader), the novel begins to fall apart. It is still quite readable, but Haldeman's social commentary becomes glaringly apparent. In this next jump, Matt encounters a future where "Christers" (Christians) have taken over the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. after the supposed return of Jesus. Haldeman is sadly transparent in portraying Christians (and probably all people of faith) as either conniving schemers, buffoons, or innocent pawns. I was hoping that Matt's encounter with the lovely and truly faithful Martha would have some sort of impact on his own state of faith (or lack thereof, since Matt is a self-declared Jewish atheist), but such is not the case. Haldeman uses this part of the book to make his case that any truly intelligent person will depend solely on scientific observation to explore and discover the universe, and that faith is merely surrendering to superstition. As a person of faith reading Haldeman's rendition of life "post-return" of Jesus, I had to determine that either he didn't do his Biblical homework, or he was making a point that Bible-believers will disregard what "the Word" actually says for a hand full of technologically generated miracles. The "faithful" in the Massachusetts of the 23rd Century blithely return to a world of a medieval religious rule with futuristic technology reserved for the ruling class. No Christian I know would have considered Jesus dropping in on the President of the United States as his first port of call to be even remotely valid, but somehow Haldeman portrays this as not a problem for the "elect". A rather simplistic view of people of faith which was one of the most disappointing parts of the book. I guess the author never met a believer that had a brain and perhaps the Scarecrow in the "Wizard of Oz" was the archetypal Christian, but I digress. It seems that Haldeman's pet peeves aren't reserved for Christianity though, in that Matt's next jump, some thousands of years into the future beyond the "Christers", takes him into a world where global society is based on eBay. A heroic but hapless Martha saves Matt's life while he's trying to escape her point in history, but at the cost of joining him on his journey into the future. While Matt confirms his understanding that Christ's return was a sham (it's now in the history books) put on by the government (talk about lack of separation between church and state), Martha, who manages to hold on to her faith for some time, eventually watches it crumble to dust as their journey forward through time continues. Matt and Martha do encounter a "savior" of a sort, both in their dreams and during each jump forward in time as they become unwitting victims of an artificial intelligence who needs Matt to help her (yes, it's a gendered intelligence) escape the boredom of running the "eBay society". For some mysterious reason (which is never revealed), this intelligence believes that seeking the ultimate end of the universe is the answer to a "life" of governing a bunch of wealthy but mentally vacant shopping drones. I could say that the book becomes less and less plausible from there, but when predicting the future, how can you say what will or won't happen? Matt struggles with his liberal ideals, especially towards women. On the one hand, he ends up explaining the various sexist aspects of the Bible to Martha and, on the other hand, arguing with himself about whether he should seduce the lovely and virginal Martha, or "act like a man" and protect her from the surrounding dangers, which includes himself. The book has a happy ending of sorts. Matt and Martha are rescued, both from their virtual captor and from forward time traveling, and given a choice of returning to a specific place or a specific time, not both. Without blatantly revealing the ending, Matt discovers several things (but not how time travel actually works). He does discover that he really loves Martha and treats her honorably, ultimately marrying her. He also discovers his "niche" if you will, by becoming a brilliant scientist, but only in the past. It's a little easier to be, or at least seem brilliant, if you know what scientific discoveries are about to be made. Martha discovers more, but for me, one discovery was sad. She loses her faith, but does fall in love and marry Matt. I suppose never seeing the return of Christ (or the coming of the Messiah, from Matt's perspective) would have to lead to the conclusion that the Bible, both Christian and Jewish, is just a collection of morality tales, not much different than the novel I'm reviewing. Martha leaves Christ behind and earns a degree in one of the sciences before "settling down" and having babies. Matt considers this an achievement far greater than his own. He achieves "greatness" by virtue of using what any 21st century physics grad student would know in a past where that knowledge was just on the cusp of being discovered. Matt (and thus Haldeman) considers Martha earning an undergraduate degree more significant, because he had to leave the fantasy of her faith behind to do it. Are education and faith truly mutually exclusive? The young couple finally take the one piece of advice Matt's father ever gave him, which was to "play the cards you're dealt". Sans time machine, Matt and Martha make a life for themselves in the time and place they were sent to by their saviors from the far future. At this point, domestic bliss is almost irrelevant and the next several decades are described in mere paragraphs. This unhappily bypasses the opportunity for both Matt and Martha to narrate their impressions on a history that the audience would have either lived through (the 20th century) or at least have heard about from their parents (or people like me). It could have been the most significant part of the novel but Haldeman treats it as an afterthought. The ending is ultimately unsatisfying to me. While Matt and Martha happily set up their household and family at some point in the near (historically speaking) past, their fate is as much accidental as anything else in this tale. The novel seems to reveal a certain truth about secularist and atheist thought; that life is random and ultimately meaningless. You end up where you end up, live, breathe, work, have babies, and then die without a point. There really are no lessons learned unless you take into consideration that a mediocre mid-21st century MIT grad student finds his purpose only by going into the past where foreknowledge makes him seem "cutting edge". Aren't we all like that though, at least in our fantasies? Who hasn't said to themselves, "If only I could go back with what I know now..." Sorry, Mr. Haldeman. This is a nice little piece of fantasy with liberal (politically and otherwise) amounts of personal and social commentary, but not your best work. Of course, if I re-read The Forever War after so long, would I be as disappointed?