On the books of Michael Crichton

Crichton Travels in Time


By Joel N. Shurkin

A History of History

Writers find time travel irresistible. In his novel Timeline, Michael Crichton entered a field rich with some of the most inventive and clever of writers in a tradition going back 300 years.

While his book was a bestseller and was turned into a movie, it is not regarded as one of his best. It does, however, show him at what he does best: taking current scientific thinking and extrapolating and staying within the bounds of what we know until the time when his imagination requires the existential leap he needs for his plot.

Time travel stories generally run into two literary genres: fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy writers usually don’t bother with explaining how time travel is possible, while science fiction writers do what Crichton does: confront the science and then ignore what needs to be ignored and take it from there. That’s the science in science fiction.

The first example of time travel in English literature may be Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, written in the eighteenth century (1733) by Samuel Madden, in which documents from 1997 and 1998 showed up in the story. The documents originated from a guardian angel fantasy as opposed to science fiction. There probably was not enough known science to do science fiction in 1733. Other examples appeared in the early nineteenth century, including a short story in the Dublin Literary Magazine in 1838 in which a traveler went back in time and met the venerable Bede (seventh century), but like rip van Winkle,  …

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