Michael Crichton used to be my favorite author. Then I read State of Fear. That’s not really an exaggeration, State of Fear is so bad it changed my whole opinion on the author. It’s a breathless screed against climate science wrapped in the barest wrapper of a story. It’s one of those “why even did you write this” things that doesn’t feel at all out of place in 2023, the age of Matt Walsh’s What is a Woman and Elon Musk demanding a renowned vaccine scientist debate a conspiracy theorist in front of the former host of Fear Factor.
In addition to the why being baffling, the how and what are terrible, with the positions Crichton takes being made up of cherry-picked bullshit presented as skepticism and hard-headed reason. The story meanwhile exists solely so that it can be paused on plane rides and Crichton’s Gary Sue can “debate” climate believers and win them over.
Why am I not talking about Timeline? Because, unfortunately, once you’ve read State of Fear, you can’t really recover from it. You’ll start to notice how every single Crichton story has a Gary Sue of his in it who takes the role of the brilliant and eloquent Ha Ha I’m Right guy. You’ll notice weird little digs against people who want to reform capitalism, and the sneering dismissal of young idealists. Crichton, like most classical liberals in the vein of Bill Maher, never really had the high ground as much as they thought, and like Bill Maher, his suck is on full display and distracting to a modern audience.
This is a bummer because Timeline is one of those novels that made me want to write. It’s a time travel story that frames the brutality and dynamism of the middle ages in an anti-cliche way. It’s thrilling, with the whole tale taking place over a little more than a day, and drama at both ends. I do recommend it, I own a first-edition and think anyone who likes the writing of Dan Brown or the careful needle-threading and tension of a heist story would enjoy themselves. Just go in understanding what you’re in for with the author’s baggage: a lot of mansplained science and the tone of someone who un-ironically mutters “kids these days.”
Minor spoilers ahead.
In Timeline, a group of researchers studying France in the Middle Ages are stunned when they discover what appears to be the modern eye-glasses and a scrawled note from their study lead buried in their dig site. No one has seen him for 48 hours, since the tech conglomerate who funds the dig spirited him away for an emergency meeting with the mercurial CEO. An envoy from the conglomerate arrives and takes four more researchers, promising to bring them to the study lead. It turns out the conglomerate has invented commercial time travel, and the lead went missing on a trip back to the period of their research.
Three of the four additional researchers prep to head back with two ex-Marine guards, while the fourth taps out, insisting he’s a physicist and computer engineer not a historian. Shit immediately ensues, with one guard killed outright and the other attempting to fling a grenade as he’s peppered with arrows. Unfortunately, he also activated his return device, so he arrives in modern time as the grenade falls from his hand, and the time machine is crippled.
What follows is 32 hours of edge of your seat action as the three historians reckon with survival in an age where their brutal public executions can be ordered on a whim by despotic warlords, and the remaining researcher back home has to help the tech conglomerate scramble to ensure there’s a machine ready to bring them home when they call it. The physics problems are somehow as exciting as the jousting is.
Again, I recommend it, baggage and all.