The Accidental Time Machine is Joe Haldeman’s return to flinging characters forward through time. While in the Hugo Award-winning The Forever War the protagonist Mandella is a soldier experiencing Earth’s future at an accelerated rate due to relativistic time dilation, here our narrator is Matt, a loser doctoral candidate who, as the title implies, accidentally creates a time machine. His time machine only goes forward, at set intervals, but the intervals increase at an exponential rate. Its first jump goes forward a second, then a few seconds, then minutes, hours, etc., eventually landing him millennia in the future. The future scenario Matt sees is very different from that Mandella experiences.
Matt has created this time machine while working on a calibration device for examining gravitons. He’s been up for more than thirty hours (and had taken some meth) the first time it disappears. His professor, not seeing this remarkable occurrence, tells him to go home. It happens again (and the professor doesn’t see it, again), so Matt decides to take it home and experiment with it instead of showing it to his professor. The first few chapters are hard to struggle through, as Matt consistently acts like an idiot in order to make the story move forward as Haldeman needs it to. Later on even Haldeman admits that his character is acting like a juvenile fool. As the narrator points out:
Ironically, Kara and Strom, whose betrayal had pushed [Matt] into pushing the button, became his best friends and mentors. He often went to their place for dinner, to hang around and play with their son, Peter. At nine years old, he was close to being Matt’s equal in social sophistication. (p. 78)
Likewise when Kara, his ex-girlfriend now decades older, tries to start an affair with him:
She kissed him softly, and then deeply. “Please? Your place at 6:00 on Friday?” She moved his hand to her breast, and then her own hand somewhat lower.
Of course he said yes, and before the subway was halfway home, regretted having said it. . . .
A mature man would have called Kara the next day and said he got carried away, sorry, there’s no way that it could work. Let’s admit we made a mistake and stay good friends.
Instead, Matt figured he had just two days to get to the machine and escape into the future. (p. 80)
Once Matt starts seriously jumping ahead, though, the pace picks up, and the reader can stop picking apart the plot. It’s simply unfortunate that this point is only reached about a third of the way through this very short novel, which makes the first third feel like time wasted.
The book starts in the near future, where basically everything is the same, with the addition of fuel-celled cars and smaller computers. The next big leap is to fifteen years past that, and again nothing much has changed, except the people Matt has known. Things really start to get interesting when Matt jumps ahead about a century and finds Massachusetts has become a fundamentalist theocracy. The claim is that Jesus’ Second Coming had happened about seventy years before, and since then there have been tight controls on the populace. MIT is now the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy, where the professors live like monks and women are only allowed to be assistants. When Jesus calls Matt in for a meeting and demands the time machine, Matt decides to get the hell out of there, accidentally taking along an attractive young woman, Martha.
The next future is an intensely consumerist one in which most people don’t have to labor excessively but spend their hours arranging complicated barter exchanges. It seems like a world entirely dominated by eBay shoppers. Matt gets a good head start by auctioning off a bottle of wine that he’d grabbed from MIT in the fundamentalist time period, but then he is called in for an interview with the AI that is basically running the society. The AI admits that its society is stable but also completely stagnant and asks Matt for assistance in helping it explore the future, ideally to the end of the universe. So Matt and Martha accompany it for another jump. Here they find a wasteland where most humans have emigrated off-planet, and they also take a brief gander at the terraformed Moon. Matt discovers that the AI does not have his best interests at heart, and the resolution of their conflict forms the book's low-key climax.
"Low-key" describes most of this book. It is very short and easy to read and completely lacks the emotional intensity and drive of The Forever War. Where that book describes a soldier caught up by circumstance and flung into the future despite himself, Matt, while not exactly a boldly going explorer, at least has basic control of his destiny. He chooses which path he will take, even if he makes stupid choices. Likewise, he doesn’t interact with the societies he finds himself in as deeply as Mandella does with those he encounters. So where descriptions of Mandella’s future focus on social systems and how alien he finds them, Matt’s futures are described more in terms of political and economic systems. What we are presented with is a theocracy in which the ruling party controls technology and thus gives the populace only a Puritan New England standard of living, and a society whose free-energy capitalism keeps everyone fat and happy but leaves no one with a real drive to progress, resulting in a stagnation that makes AIs appear to be the force of the future. These sketches are so slight that it seems the author is merely skimming the surface of some cool ideas and refusing to engage with them more deeply. For instance, the scientific philosophy of the book is so strong that the reader knows that Jesus’ Second Coming has to be a fraud of some sort. There is almost no tension from the possibility that it might turn out to be true. So instead we simply start looking for the evidence of a hoax and are unsurprised when it is found. There’s nothing wrong with that standpoint, common as it is to almost all SF, but it leaves that section of the book largely devoid of tension and anticlimactic when the fraud is revealed.
This self-confident scientism also shows in Matt’s different reactions to Jesus and the AI in different futures. When called before Jesus he is immediately suspicious, demanding answers and poking holes. When called before the AI, which is equally autocratic (and in control of an equally sequacious populace), his attitude is basically helpful, and it takes dream voices communicating to Matt and Martha from the future to warn him of the AI’s duplicity. It would have been nice if the hero were equally suspicious of those wielding absolute power, instead of jumping all over the one who appears in superstitious garb and completely acquiescing to the one that sounds like it comes from a Charles Stross novel. Given that the AI tries to stab Matt in the back, it may be that Haldeman wants us to equate the false religious savior and the false scientific pipe dream of AI, but Matt is much too thick to learn such a lesson. After all, when it comes to the dream voices later, Matt pretty much believes every word they say and follows all of their instructions unquestioningly.
To the extent that The Accidental Time Machine has central arguments, they involve politics and economics. Thus the book is closer to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine than to Haldeman’s own The Forever War. It even contains warnings similar to Wells’s: don’t fall for theocratic hoaxers, don’t become overly complacent consumerist drones. However, in such a short novel (278 pages in hardcover, with big margins and wide line spacing), none of these ideas are fleshed out or brought to life. They remain simple outlines, as do the characters. Martha is liberated from her oppressive Puritan upbringing and adapts to our ways of thinking remarkably quickly, and she ends up romantically attached to Matt as a taken-for-granted matter of course. One might ask: is winding up with the only guy around who knows your background and speaks your language any different from an arranged marriage? That simply isn’t a question that the book considers. Matt is a good (enough) guy who has (more or less) the right values, which by definition makes him better for Martha than anyone she might have ended up with back home.
In the end, I think this book might have been better served by cutting to the chase earlier, excising a large section of the first third, and losing Martha's romantic education. Then it could have been published as a novella instead of a novel. It touches on some interesting ideas but doesn’t pursue them. With a deeper exploration of the politics and economics of its different futures it could have engaged in a more focused conversation with Wells than the one it ends up with. Besides, the more we know about Matt from that first part of the book, the less we like him, and a more sympathetic and heroic protagonist might have made the later sections more engaging. As it stands, this very fast read ends up feeling as shallow as Matt’s character.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and archives her reviews at www.SpiralGalaxyReviews.com. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.