Review: “The Accidental Time Machine” By Joe Haldeman (Novel)

Well, after I read Jodi Taylor’s amazing “No Time Like The Past” a few weeks before writing this review, I decided to look online for other time travel-themed novels to tide me over until later novels in Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series came down in price.

And, after a bit of searching, I found a second-hand copy of Joe Haldeman’s 2007 novel “The Accidental Time Machine”. Which, for some reason, I only got round to reading several weeks later.

So, let’s take a look at “The Accidental Time Machine”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Ace Science Fiction (US) paperback edition of “The Accidental Time Machine” that I read.

The novel follows Matt Fuller, a research assistant in a future (late 2050s) version of MIT. After Matt presses a button on a piece of scientific equipment, the machine quite literally disappears for a second. Puzzled, he tries it again and the machine disappears for slightly longer. So, after convincing his boss to let him take the machine home for “repairs”, Matt begins to experiment with it.

However, things aren’t going well for Matt. His girlfriend leaves him for another man and he is made redundant from MIT because his boss thinks that he’s over-qualified. But, since he still has the machine, Matt decides to do a major experiment with it. The type of experiment that Nobel prizes are made out of. After connecting the machine to a friend’s car, he gets into the car and presses the button…….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is absolutely brilliant 🙂 Imagine a slightly more serious and atmospheric version of the 1990s TV show “Sliders”, mixed with a little bit of the quirkiness of 1960s/70s science fiction, mixed with a bit of “hard” science fiction and sprinkled with a few subtle hints of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, H.P.Lovecraft, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World“, the game “Deus Ex“, the movie “Army Of Darkness” and the TV show “Doctor Who” and you might come vaguely close to this novel. It is a compelling, atmospheric sci-fi thriller that has personality and heart.

In terms of the novel’s science fiction elements, they are really good. There is enough scientific jargon, explanations, experiments and academic stuff to give the novel an authoritative weight, but enough mysterious unexplained stuff to evoke a feeling of wonder and curiosity.

One theme in this novel seems to be that basic scientific knowledge is a constant throughout most periods of history, with it being one of the relatively few useful things Matt carries with him as he jumps through time. Likewise, this novel also covers topics like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, time paradoxes etc…

Likewise, the novel’s time travel elements are handled in a vaguely “realistic” way, with Matt only being able to jump forward in time at ever-increasing increments. The time travel process itself follows a number of other rules too, but the main emphasis of the story is on Matt finding himself a “stranger in a strange land” in different versions of the future. This helps to add a lot of intrigue, suspense and wonder to the story.

Another awesome thing about this novel is it’s atmosphere. Virtually every location in this novel (including a snowy near-future version of Boston, a run-down theocratic dystopia, a futuristic version of LA etc….) feels wonderfully vivid and fascinating. Seriously, this is the kind of novel which should be adapted into a film, but which would probably lose a lot if it was. The atmosphere of this book is a little bit difficult to describe (it’s a little bit like a movie/TV show from the 1990s), but it is one of the best things about this novel 🙂

One interesting feature of this novel is that it is both a utopian and a dystopian novel. The strict, poor and theocratic version of Boston is contrasted with an A.I. controlled version of Los Angeles where everyone is rich. Yet, both places are presented with a degree of nuance.

The physical and intellectual horrors of the theocracy aren’t shied away from, yet hints of free thought still bloom in secret, the people there are content because they know little better and – in a conservative US theocracy of all places – there is actually sensible gun control too (although this could be there to foreshadow a later plot point). Yet, in contrast, the refreshingly prosperous and laid-back A.I. controlled utopia has fallen into a vaguely “Brave New World”-style state of mediocrity, vapidity and torpor.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is really good. It is formal and descriptive enough to give the story atmosphere, but it is also informal, nerdy and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace. In a lot of ways, the narration in this novel is bit like an updated modern version of the narrative styles used in the sci-fi novels of the 1950s-70s.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is also really good too. At an efficient 257 pages in length, this novel tells a full story without any of the bloat you’d expect to find in a modern novel. Likewise, the story remains fairly compelling throughout – with a good mixture of slower-paced scenes of suspense/atmosphere/world-building and more thrillingly fast-paced moments.

All in all, this is a really brilliant sci-fi novel 🙂 It’s compelling, atmospheric and wonderfully intriguing too. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the kind of book that should be adapted into a film, but would probably lose a lot if it was. So, if you’re a fan of time travel stories, then this one is well worth taking a look at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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