Always a big fan of time travel/alternate universe stories, I was bound to pick up Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine at some point. Believing it would be a lighthearted look at time travel, I was a bit surprised by how far my expectations were off, and how disappointing the book was.
Matt is a lab assistant at MIT in the near future who accidentally creates a time machine when building some sort of graviton spectrometer. Finding that the machine jumps forward and only forward in time in progressively longer interims, Matt decides to hop aboard himself and check it out. Feeling threatened at future stops, he continues to fling himself forward ever farther in time. Eventually, about 200 years after the story begins, he winds up in a sort of post-apocalyptic theocracy where he meets Martha, the obligatory eventual love interest. As they jumps take him father and farther ahead in time, the different earths he explores are fairly boring. For what is a short novel, it would have been nicer to get more a sense of these worlds before leaping to the next.
The theocracy I described takes place after the second coming of Jesus, and there are religious themes throughout the book. Unfortunately, the religious angle isn’t played up enough for my tastes, and the evolution of Martha’s character is fairly unbelievable when one considers that she has grown up in a sheltered world full of old time religion.
Haldeman relies on the standard third person narration here, but with the entire novel being told from Matt’s perspective, I wonder why he didn’t go the first person route. I think the humor would have worked better, and it just might have made things more exciting to experience them through his eyes rather than just being told through the narration. Perhaps this is just an inherent bias with me; I tend to prefer first person narration above all others.
Matt really wants to return home, so the basic quest is the search for a time machine that allows one to travel back in time. He keeps jumping to the future in order to find someone who can help him build one of it doesn’t exist already, and when he finally does discover a way back no real explanation besides ‘you don’t have the worldview to begin to understand the math’ is given. I’m not some big tech head who has to know how everything works, but why write a book about time travel and go light on the mechanics?
All in all, The Accidental Time Machine is a fair book that was more entertaining than not. I suppose my disappointment mainly stems from my wish that this would be a sort of comedic version of David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, probably the best time travel book I've read. However, it was nice to read a little more of one of the most respected SF writers. I may have to go with a more traditional military SF novel by him sometime next year.