Literature: Timeline

Timeline is a 1999 novel by author Michael Crichton. It involves quantum physics effectively applied as time travel (though it is more complicated than that), set in The Hundred Years War.

An old man has been found in the midst of the New Mexico desert, and is soon discovered to have strange deformities and to be an employee of a company named ITC. He is dead within a day of his discovery, and is quickly cremated by request of the company. One of the items found in his possessions is a architectural drawing of a long-destroyed French monastery. Meanwhile, a group of researchers in the Dordogne region of France, exploring a medieval archaeological dig at the ruins of that same monastery, make an astounding discovery. Their financial patron, ITC, contacts them and reveals its greatest secret - tapping quantum technology to effectively travel through time...

A film adaptation was released in 2003, starring Paul Walker, Gerard Butler, Frances O'Connor, Billy Connolly, Anna Friel, and David Thewlis among others.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-universe example; historical records paint Lord Oliver as a heroic character and Arnaut de Cervole as the villain, yet the differences are blurred when the characters meet them.
  • Asshole Victim: Doniger.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Due to Doniger's marketing plan, which is using the time travel technology just to create historically-accurate historical restorations, instead of, you know, obtaining stock prices from the future.
    • In the book this was a lie, and he planned to steal future technology.
  • Ax-Crazy: Robert de Kere/Deckard. At first sight, a typical bloodthirsty medieval warrior, yet in fact a traveler gone mad due to transcription errors.
  • Badass Normal: Andre Marek who can hold his own against battle-expierenced knights in a joust due to being a fanatic historical reenactor.
  • Big Bad: Lord Oliver
  • Blood Knight: De Kere.
  • Black Widow: Lady Claire, in the novel. This aspect is entirely stripped out in the film.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: André. He later effectively rectifies the situation by choosing to stay behind.
    • Robert Deckard too, arguably.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Each researcher is introduced to us in certain scenes that make sense later. Also has elements of Plot Tailored to the Party.
    • Justified: the reason the protagonists are sent to the past is that they are experts on exactly that time period.
  • Cloning Blues: How "time travel" works is by disintegrating a person in one universe and essentially making the target universe replicate that body down to the subatomic level - you're no longer you, the person in the "past" isn't you, and the person who come back isn't you, technically. Any error in the system will cause trauma, which is why Robert de Kere is such a psychopath - he accumulated one too many errors, warping his brain.
  • Co-Dragons: De Kere and Sir Guy are this to Lord Oliver.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check / Reed Richards Is Useless: A lot of the technologies that had to be developed to make this time travel system work, like quantum computers that ran millions of calculations in parallel and down-to-the-atom body scanners, would have probably made more money than the actual plan ever could if they had just sold those.
    • Justified in that Doniger didn't care about the money, but rather the applications of the technology.
  • Disguised in Drag: Kate and no-one else because guards were looking for three foreigners; two males and one female. Guess what they did to fool them?
    • Lady Claire also cross-dresses around the countryside.
  • Disney Villain Death: Sir Guy.
  • Dung Ages: Subverted and mocked. The protagonist walks around, expecting horribly disgusting conditions, but is surprised to learn everyone is reasonably well kept. In the afterward, Crichton notes this was mostly an invention of the Renaissance, during which many scholars romanticized the Classical period above their own era. Personal hygiene declined significantly only once the Black Plague became epidemic (which started around the time the book is set), when the public baths that were common in most Medieval towns and cities became disease vectors. This made frequent bathing a hazard, and it was denounced as sinful, which became part of the culture. Sanitation in most of Europe was already poor, though-people threw refuse right onto the streets. Unfortunately the cultural attitude went too far in the other direction, and monarchs after this like Isabella I of Spain boasted of only bathing a few times in their entire lives.
  • Evil Genius: Doniger is this, in a Bill Gates vein.
  • For the Evulz: Robert de Kere. It's also stated that both French and English soldiers, when storming a castle, will massacre every civilian inside for kicks-and, as much as the team would like to save them all, stopping a massacre would have far-reaching consequences in the future.
  • Grandfather Paradox: When one of the travelers asks this exact question, Doninger explains that one person couldn't make the Mets beat the Yankees: i.e. a single person can't significantly change the course of history. But when the questioner presses the point, we get a Hand Wave.
  • Happily Ever After: Andre and Claire.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade / Historical Villain Upgrade: In-universe, English leader Lord Oliver is regarded by modern historians as "almost a saint," while French leader Arnaut is remembered as The Caligula. In truth the two's personalities are somewhat reversed: Oliver is a massive, gluttonous, sadistic jerkass and Arnaut, while being indeed as ugly as history remembers him and capable of great cruelty, is a far more Reasonable Authority Figure.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The horrible reality of medieval warfare is painted in full. One of the team plainly states that when castles finally fell after sieges, everyone inside them was massacred, and talks of pregnant women being disemboweled (Truth in Television, unfortunately).
  • Jerkass: Robert Doniger, big time.
  • Law of Conservation of Detail: Averted, as several pages are devoted to explaining the concepts of quantum mechanics and parallel universes even though they really are not central to the plot. It is Michael Crichton, after all.
  • Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness: Pretty hard, but for an obvious lack of quantum transfer machines on a large scale in real life.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Averted, the first character to be killed is female, and also an ethnic minority.
  • Parrot Exposition: While Robert Doniger is having his one-on-one rants with ITC's vice president Diane Kramer, Diane often repeats small snippets of Doniger's speech back to him. Diane does this because she knows Doniger is really only talking to himself, and Doniger hearing his own words helps him to sort out his thoughts whenever he and his company are facing problems.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: A problem that ITC encounters when it tries to market the time travel technology. Who wants to witness the Gettysburg Address when all you're getting is watching an ugly man with an incredibly high-pitched voice speak quickly to a group of morose people in the rain? Who wants to see George Washington seasick and huddling with his men from a stormy, cold night during the famous crossing of the Delaware River?
  • Relocating the Explosion: In a bad way, the grenade, which kicks off the entire plot.
  • Sleep Learning: How ITC prepares its travelers to speak the proper dialects and such. It doesn't work too well, as in real life. Apart from picking up a few words and phrases while they're there, only André and the Professor can really communicate properly since they already knew the basics. Chris manages to scrape by with a bit of Latin.
  • Shown Their Work: In typical Crichtonian fashion.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: Adapted, effectively, on Doniger. In the book, he is tossed into the time machine and sent back a year after the rest, when the Black Death arrives in Europe.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The book version of Chris is pretty stupid, mostly not listening to André regarding anything for the first half. After which they're separated and he becomes marginally more intelligent.
  • Time Is Dangerous: Travel is accomplished by copying the information required to rebuild a perfect copy (at the atomic level) of the traveler and beaming this information into the past. Errors in copying are possible (in fact, inevitable if the machine isn't properly shielded) leading to Clone Degeneration.
  • Time Travellers Are Spies: Subverted. De Kere is a time traveler himself and he identifies the other time travelers as spies For the Evulz.
  • Universal Translator: The travelers use a hearing aid-like device so that they can understand Old English and French. It doesn't translate their speech, though-and they quickly begin picking up words by themselves.
  • Unreliable Expositor: The explanation for how time travel works (it's an alternate universe functionally identical to that time, not earlier in the same timeline) turns out to be simply wrong. It is, in fact, time travel-just... odd.
    • Justified in that the expositors in question, when pressed on several issues, admit that they don't really understand how the technology works...just that it does. This is not uncommon in quantum mechanics.
  • Would Hurt a Child: It's explained that knights and soldiers kill everyone when a castle falls-even if it means tearing babies out of their mothers' wombs.

The film features the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: There are no universal translators. The Medieval characters just speak modern English and French and the contemporary characters understand them just fine.
    • Somewhat justified because in the novel, the Medieval people COULD understand the time travelers to some extent, though they had difficult understanding many of the modern grammatical rules they used (such as contractions).
  • Adaptational Nationality: Andre Marek who is Dutch in the novel is changed to being a Scot on account of being played by Scottish actor Gerald Butler.
  • Arrows on Fire: Used in the siege scene.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: In the film, Andre Marek and Lady Claire, when Marek chooses to stay in the past at the Battle of Laroque.
  • Morton's Fork: Lord Oliver orders François to translate "I am a spy" from French into English to prove that he is an interpreter and not a spy. If he refuses or translates it wrongly, he'll be declared a spy and killed. If he complies... it will be considered a confession and he will be killed as well. Which he is.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: Doniger is thrown into the final battle using the time machine, where a knight instantly decapitates him.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Taking François back with them. Did no one understand that taking a Frenchman back in time to a period where the English and French were at war would be an incredibly bad idea? Sure enough, shortly after arriving, he is forced to translate the phrase "Je suis un espion" into English ("I am a spy") and gets run through.