In 1989 Bill Smith, an agent of the National Transportation Safety Board, is sent to the scene of an airline accident in Minnesota where a Boeing 747 was bumped by a DC-10, shearing part of the wing off, crashing both aircraft. He and his colleagues find several oddities to the wreckage; all the watches found in the wreckage are forty-five minutes ahead — some were found running backwards — and the black box recorded the flight engineer running into the cockpit screaming that the passengers he had gone to check on were all burned and dead.
Meanwhile, about eighty thousand years in the future, Just Before the Endnote . Pollution is so bad it is not only killing everyone but they can't exist without it, either. A plan is underway to use Time Travel to pluck humans from throughout history just before their deaths if it can be done in secrecy — historical lost colonies, shipwrecks, airplane cashes, any situation lacking survivors — the living are replaced with brain-dead duplicates and stored as Human Popsicles so they can eventually be sent somewhere far enough in the future (or elsewhere) that the pollution had broken down and the human race can start anew. This is tricky business, though; anything out of place can cause a time paradox which results in massive issues in the future they came from.
Unfortunately, someone accidentally left a stunner on the 747. It's up to Louise Baltimore to get the missing stunner back and make sure it doesn't end up in Bill's hands.
The book was made into a movie in 1989.
This book provides examples of:
- Adam and Eve Plot: The point of collecting the doomed people is to send them to an un-polluted world. However, It's a nested set of lies.
- The Big Computer tells Louise they're actually being sent into the future where the world has recovered, so she'll join them and give birth to the daughter she conceived with Bill.
- The Big Computer tells Sherman an exact number of a hundred million years, enough for him to accept that scenario as a machine like him is aware how bad the damage is and how long it would theoretically take to reverse itself.
- The Big Computer AKA God admits to Himself that humanity irreversibly wrecked the planet, and he has to essentially re-make the universe; It's not just an Adam and Eve plot, it's the Adam and Eve plot. He even admits that this will make three times he's done it; the first time with the old "make him out of dust and her out of one of his ribs" gag had turned out even worse than the current science-based "humanity dies out in 82,000 AD" timeline, so this time he's dropping intelligent machines like Sherman into the Garden with them.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Gate Project successfully sends 200,000 healthy humans to a new Earth where they can re-populate. Mayer reunites with the daughter who the Project rescued from a plane crash. Louise joins them, and even successfully produces a healthy daughter with Bill, despite her first child dying before her second birthday. However, Mayer turns out to have idealized his relationship with his daughter, who spitefully reveals to him(but not to the reader) a tragic secret behind the death of her mother. Louise dies just a year later, leaving Bill with their daughter — who will neglect her, as he never even mentioned that he has an ex-wife and two more children who he abandoned in the past. Sherman bemoans that he and his fellow sentient machines will have a lot on their hands keeping humanity from wasting their second chance. And he's not even aware that it's actually humanity's third chance.
- The Blank: Sherman starts the book with no face and adds to it as the plot moves along.
- Brain in a Jar: Some of the council are exactly that.
- Chekhov's Gun: Sherman says he's like Jesus. Louise makes a comment and he changes it to Moses. In the end it turns out he's been the prophet of Big Computer all along.
- Contrived Clumsiness: Louise tries this to divert attention away from an incriminating audio recording, while also trying to destroy the tape via spilled coffee. It doesn't work.
- Chronoscope: The Gate can be used as one — just not on any time period when the Gate was in operation.
- Cyborg: Many of the people in the future have aspects of this, especially as the 21st century came up with "genetic warfare"; diseases that not only killed enemy populations, but left the survivors with congentital conditions. After a few centuries of that, people who didn't have at least one failing organ replaced with prosthetics are completely unheard of; the most common being a "skinsuit" that acts as an external immune system and general cosmetic for a blighted appearance. It's rather common for people to spend the rest of their lives in the equivalent of iron lungs.Louise: The critical problems were all inside. Various organs were in advanced states of disrepair. Many were gone, replaced by artificial ones. It was a toss-up which would be the next to go. Some we can replace with self-contained, life-sized imitations. Some require a roomful of machinery if they go rotten.
- Derelict Graveyard: When it's easier just to pull the entire doomed craft through the gate they do so and then dump it here. Louise notes the interesting juxtaposition here; the Titanic sits next to a starship.
- Deus Est Machina: turns out Big Computer was actually God on earth.
- The Ending Changes Everything: The Big Computer had been God himself all along, helping humanity save themselves.
- Fantastic Slurs: Louise calls the people they rescue "Goats" because they're ridiculously healthy compared to people from her time. Those she calls "Wimps", because they're dying in such numbers that the Gate Project freezes their bodies and leaves them in the past as Tricked Out Time replacements for the "goats".
- Gainax Ending: For the same reason as Neon Genesis Evangelion, too; the Big Computer is revealed to be God, and Sherman his prophet. They discuss that Louise was an Unreliable Narrator; so crazy there's no way to tell if anything she said throughout the story is true. Once Sherman goes to sleep in preparation for the jump to the future, God admits to himself that the "hundred million year" jump explanation is actually for the benefit of Sherman, who he's lying to only slightly less than Louise; he's actually RECREATING THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE and starting a new "sequence", hoping the addition of intelligent machines like Sherman will help humans make better use of their free will this time; the first time was purely Biblical from Garden of Eden to Second Coming, the second our own science-based universe complete with evolution, making this the third time he's created the universe. His last thoughts are; "Maybe this time it will work, and I'll get that vacation I keep promising myself, on the seventh day."
- Gas Leak Cover-Up: The NTSB finds dozens of weird watches in the plane crash; as things got rather hectic right before the crash, dozens of the replacements the Gate Project left behind are forty-five minutes ahead give or take those who hadn't re-set their watches for new time zones; those are a few hours ahead plus forty-five minutes. Four watches that were too close to the gate when things went completely to hell are running backwards. In the end the NTSB simply replaces them all with ones that aren't proof that someone was screwing with the laws of physics, insisting rather firmly that they never existed.
- Have We Met Yet?: Louise tries to keep Bill from unknowingly changing the future by meeting, seducing, and sleeping with him. Unfortunately, the next time Bill encounters Louise, its actually the first time she's ever met him, so she rebuffs his affectionate approach. The fact that during their (to Bill, anyway) second meeting she treats him like a complete stranger confuses Bill just enough to cause the disruption in the time stream Louise was trying to prevent in the first place.
- Idiot Ball: Bill — an NTSB agent who should know better about tinkering with evidence — stuns himself by continuing to prod around on the inside of the stunner when he knows he should be calling people about it. He lampshades this in his testimony.
- Never Found the Body: An Exploited Trope. If a person, group of people, or even entire craft full of people disappeared without a trace, the Gate Project simply snatched them like low-hanging fruit. There's a Derelict Graveyard full of lost wrecks they discarded after snatching the passengers.
- Never the Selves Shall Meet: Invoked. No one can enter a time where they already exist; and it rarely comes up anyway, as the gate can't access any particular time more than once.
- No Antagonist: Except maybe Humanity itself, for letting the future get as bad as it has.
- One-Word Title
- Our Time Travel Is Different: Aside from the constant danger of a Time Crash, the Gate can only appear once in any specific time period; either as an entry or an exit. After that, that period of time is off-limits even for viewing through other means. That means that since the Gate was obviously in operation after it was created, no-one can travel back to that time and travel further back again, or even get a good look at the time period when it was created. As the biggest of the many wars that separated the present day from Just Before the End occurred shortly after the Gate was created, that means that no-one knows where the Gate came from. All this is Foreshadowing that humans didn't actually create the Gate, but it was in fact "given" to them by God in the form of the Big Computer.
- Physical God: Big Computer.
- Polluted Wasteland: The future.
- Population: X, and Counting: Louise asks Sherman the population of earth as most people are committing suicide. He keeps updating his answer to reflect reality. The last time she asks, there's only two hundred and seven people left.
- Ragnarök Proofing: Many of the buildings of the city.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Louise gives one to Bill when he asks what the future had done to screw everything up, when it was actually the result of his generation and onwards.It started with your great-grandfather and the industrial revolution. But it was you, you unspeakable son-of-a-bitch, your fucking generation that really got things going. Did you really think there'd never be a nuclear war? There have been nineteen of them. Did you think nerve gases were going to just sit there, that nobody would ever use them? CBN, you called it. Chemical, Biological, Nuclear. You made plans just as if the world could survive it, just like it was another you could win. Well, goddamn it, we held out a long time, but this is what we came to. The plagues were the really cute part. Add laboratory-bred microbes to a high level of background radiation, and what you get is germs that mutate a hell of a lot faster than we can. We've done our best, we've fought them with everything we have. But your great-grandchildren came up with genetic warfare. So now the plagues are locked up right in our genes. No matter how hard we fight them, they change. Did you think we started the Gate Project for fun? Can't you see what it is? It's a last-ditch, hopeless effort to salvage something from the human race.
- Tricked Out Time: The key plot element. Sure, they can travel back in time and take anything they want... as long as they leave something in its place that no-one ever realizes is fake. For the people the Gate Project rescues, they use cosmetically doctored corpses from their own time period, and stick to eras where DNA fingerprinting won't or can't be used, or where the authorities Never Found the Body.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: The book is told almost entirely from Bill and Louise's standpoint.
- Set Right What Once Went Wrong: To get the stunner back that was left behind. Unfortunately, it was found before they could get it meaning they had to go back earlier and try to stop Bill from even being there in the first place...
- Sex Bot: Sherman obliges when the need arises.
- Unreliable Narrator: In the last chapter, Sherman reveals that Louise is actually a textbook case of this; she's so intensely delusional that she only thinks she use a prosthetic skinsuit to support a mutated, crippled body; the act of "taking it off" in Sherman's presence is merely an aid to his application as a psychological therapist. There's no telling what else is wrong with her, or if any of her statements throughout the entire book have even that much connection to reality.
- We Only Have One Chance: The Gate in a nutshell. It can only be used once in any specific time period, either as an entrance or an exit. Afterwards, it can't even be used as a Chronoscope.