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REVIEW: The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

REVIEW SUMMARY: Gasp! An un-engaging time travel novel!


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Down-and-out MIT lab assistant Matt Fuller discovers a device that travels forward in time.

PROS: A promising premise of the “time travel observer” variety.
CONS: So much wasted potential; lackluster characters.
BOTTOM LINE: Ultimately un-engaging.

Time Travel is one of my favorite science fiction subgenres and has perhaps given me some of the greatest thrills, partly because there are so many approaches authors take to engage the reader. There are “observer” stories like H.G. Well’s classic The Time Machine. There are stories that wrap your mind in a time loop like Robert A. Heinlein “All You Zombies“. There are those that confront the paradox like Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. There are the thrill rides of John Varley’s book Millennium and the mind-bending plots of the film Timecrimes. More recently, Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die was an enjoyable piece of fiction that nicely utilized the time travel trope.

The less enjoyable stories (in any genre) are the ones that don’t engage the reader at all. And that was my experience with Joe Haldeman’s time travel novel The Accidental Time Machine.

The story follows Matt Fuller, a down-on-his-luck lab assistant at a near-future MIT. His intelligence is the only thing he has going for him: his girlfriend leaves him, he loses his job, etc. Matt accidentally discovers that the quantum calibrator device he is working on can travel into the future; each trip bringing it about 12 times further into the future than before. Having nothing to lose, Matt himself makes successively longer trips to the future, hoping that he can find a way back (something he’s pretty sure he can do since he seems to have left himself a message along the way.)

It seems, then, that The Accidental Time Machine is an “observer” time travel story with Matt getting peeks at future eras. These time periods range from the recognizable near future, to a techo-phobic theocratic dictatorship, to a far future where a possibly-rogue artificial intelligence is introduced (as well as some possible deities who communicate with Matt in his dreams). This isn’t a horrible approach by any means – it worked for Wells – but unlike Wells, the idea isn’t really to make social commentary. It’s more of a waiting game: Will this be the era in which matt finds out how to travel backwards? I found myself not caring. It didn’t help that Matt was as flat as a character could be.

To be sure, the author is aiming for (and delivers) a light book, so some allowances can be made for non-rigorous approach to the subgenre. My quibble is where the line was drawn. Or maybe it’s because there were ways in which I saw the story could have been more engaging:

    • Address the paradox. This is not to say that a paradox should have been introduced; McDevitt cleanly (and openly) avoided the issue by saying that time didn’t allow it. In Haldeman’s novel, it’s hardly addressed.
    • Make the time travel device controllable. Matt is simply a passenger. Sure, this is what makes him an “accidental” time traveler and lends to the desperation Matt feels as he hurtles exponentially further and further in the future. But even Well’s traveler could control his journey. Matt’s just along for the ride.
    • Don’t just have the traveler jump away when things get interesting. This happened a few times in the book and was a bit of a letdown.
  • Don’t resolve important plot points offstage. This happens at the end of the story when we are told Matt will go back and visit himself (thus giving himself the message that allows him to escape that era) but we never actually see it. Plot point denied!

Perhaps I’m being too nitpicky here. I can cite examples of time travel stories I’ve enjoyed that broke these rules. For example: Well’s time traveler didn’t address the paradox while McDevitt’s story made it impossible; Robert Silverberg’s protagonist in Project Pendulum couldn’t control the ever-increasing swings that alternated into the past and future; Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – another light time travel story – never actually showed Bill planting the keys in the bushes for him to conveniently find, etc. But the key difference is that each of those stories involved the reader in other ways.

Ultimately a story is enjoyable if it engages me as a reader. For several reasons, this one just didn’t grab me.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

4 Comments on REVIEW: The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

  1. This one didn’t work for me, either, and has marked a couple of Haldeman novels in a row that I didn’t like. 

  2. I had the complete opposite reaction in that I really enjoyed the story.  I found both the story and the central character to be engaging.  When I reviewed it I remember surfing the net and finding reviews that praised it and others that condemned it, a fact that I pointed out in my review, and it certainly seems to hold up here.   It has been long enough that my memory of the specifics is patchy, but I did like the fact that his journeys felt almost like a variety of short stories strung together with an overall narrative structure, which is something I enjoy. 


    The novel was in no way deep, it was standard sci fi adventure stuff, but I myself really enjoyed it.   I checked out Marsbound from the library the other day and hope to get to it soon.  Someone made a comparison, perhaps here, to Heinlein’s juveniles and I am certainly hoping that proves to be an apt comparison. 

    Hope your next experience with Haldeman is a better one.

  3. John C. Wright // January 5, 2010 at 12:48 pm //

    Sounds like an update on “Flight to Forever” by Poul Anderson.

  4. I don’t know about this book, but I talked to Joe Haldeman recently about his latest, Starbound, and he told me that the series started out as a novella — and was originally rejected by the editor!  Now, it’s winning critical acclaim, and Joe has been named to the Grand Master Award, the highest award in science fiction.  Also, Ridley Scott (yes, THAT Ridley Scott) is considering turning The Forever War into a 3D movie.  (If you’re interested, you can read my Joe Haldeman interview for free at )

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