Sunday, December 16, 2007

Review: The Accidental Time Machine

The Joe Haldeman I remember is the one who wrote All My Sins Remembered and The Forever War, iconic pieces of fiction that in at least one case, I find emotionally difficult to read a second time. In recent years, however, with Red Thunder and even the Nebula-winning Camouflage, it seems like he's gone for an entirely different genre all together --- the short airplane novel that's straight forward and easy to read, incorporates a few science fiction ideas, and has next to no character development, and leaves you feeling a bit like you've just swallowed a whole bunch of empty calories.

Take The Accidental Time Machine, for instance. Haldeman teaches creative writing at MIT, so he is extremely familiar with the setting, and can't help including a bit of the history of the infinite corridor, for instance. The basic concept, that of time travel, has been worked over quite a bit by science fiction writers, and Haldeman doesn't bring anything new to it. The story revolves around a graduate student, Matthew, who gets a machine to travel forward to time while building something else. He experiments with it a bit before subjecting himself to its effects, and then finds himself in trouble with the law. But he's always being bailed out by either providence or a future instance of himself. He interacts with future history (including future versions of MIT, as well as a past version), but the character is entirely plot-driven --- he doesn't create new devices, doesn't solve problems with his ingenuity, and is just dragged along by circumstances and his constant desire to return to MIT, wherever and whenever he is.

So as a Tom Swift type novel this book fails. As an examination of the science fiction concept of time travel, it isn't as innovative as Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime. Perhaps you could consider the character developed, since he goes from a Ritalin-using wired up grad student to becoming a physics professor who enjoys the love of a good woman, but even so, it does not appear that that's the point of the book.

So I guess the point of the book is a romp through time checking out past and future versions of MIT. Which is all very good if you're an MIT-lifer, but perhaps a waste of your time if you're not.
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