The Accidental Time Machine

Joe Haldeman
The Accidental Time Machine Cover

The Accidental Time Machine


I once heard that all fantasy writers have a bad Lord of the Rings novel in them. It's something they have to grapple with as writers; they have to deal with this mountain in the landscape of modern Fantasy, which is Tolkien. Any trip to the local Barnes and Noble Fantasy section should prove that many a career started with that bad knockoff Tolkein-esk novel.

I feel that SF writers have to do something quiet similar with H.G. Wells. With, especially, the classic novel, The Time Machine. That out of his works, it's the Time Machine which is the most universal. It's the pinnacle of the Scientific Romance as Wells called it. It offers up the perfect vehicle for anything and everything the mind of humanity can conceive.

And so we get The Accidental Time Machine by grandmaster Joe Haldeman.

This novel purrs along like a fine high-end sports car running at the safe and sane speeds of the Montana freeways. We're not bogged down in to much technobabble or physics-babble. Just enough for flavoring. Nor are we bogged down in to much former girlfriend/mother/professors/ drug suppler/priests/M.I.s. Just enough to flavor the main character's world, but not enough to slow us down. Haldeman know what the point is here, time travel, so the other pieces of Matt's life are thus merely background pieces.

Our hero Matt, is not having much success. He's two courses and a dissertation away from a doctorate. It's a post-grad. limbo hell for him. He's just lost his girlfriend, and then his job, but Matt seems to have made something he wasn't expecting, a time machine. Some physics-babble about gravitons, branes, and string theory and off we go.

He dully tests his machine, working up to a live turtle before pushing the button himself. The first time is for science. The second time is to escape the law and the unforeseen consequences of his jump, which aren't his fault. Then he pushes the button again, to escape the awkwardness of his life after chronophysics is known, and he's a minor celeb of the moment. This lands him in a Christian theocracy which occupies most of the East coast. They know high technology exists, but they don't go that way. That's the devils work and most knowledge is being stifled and forgotten. To a non-practicing Jew/atheist this is barely tolerable for only a couple of days. And besides, Matt's machine is a one way only machine, and he thinks there has to be a backwards machine out there, in the future. So the button gets pushed again. Matt brings Martha with him on this jump. She just happened to be standing between him and a policeman who was waving a gun and shouting about a heretic spy.

This time they come to a place where the buzz words are wealthy, luxury, and boredom. The pair, Matt and Martha, meet La, the M.I. personification of the computer system which is running Los Angeles. La noticed the old history of the curious one way time machine several hundred years ago and has prepared for Matt's arrival. Go with La to the heat death of the universe, or to find those who can travel backwards, or stay in that time. are the options La gives them. On they go.

A few encounters, nongendered humans, bioengineered dinosaurs, stone-age bears, a several mile high platinum marker, a teraformed moon, and they arrive at their last stop. Other time travelers intervene, sending La forward and Matt and Martha back to 19th century Boston to live happily ever after. The end. Wells would've approved. This is a modern scientific romance with a happy ending. It's lite, quick, harmless, and forgettable. That's the one thing Wells had which this doesn't. The future Wells invented was far more memorable. Like so many others, this novel is just a footnote in the shadow of The Time Machine.