Every now and then, I run across a book that I think of as an idea book. It’s a novel that’s not really about plot or character, but is an opportunity for an author to play around with cool concepts. Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine is once of these (as you could probably guess after that intro). It’s a short novel that lets Haldeman extrapolate what human society might turn into at various points in our future.
The main character, Matt Fuller, discovers a time machine that will only transport him into the future. After he gets caught in bad circumstances, he starts jumping into the future in exponential intervals. At fifteen years in the future, Matt feels out of touch, even though the people he knew were still alive. At 170+ years, the world has undergone technological and religious revolutions. At nearly 3,000 years, the world had reached a long slide into ennui. Unlike in Wells’ The Time Machine, humanity doesn’t evolve into Morlocks and Eloi. Their grammar gets worse, but otherwise Homo sapiens as a species doesn’t change much.
In this novel, the visits in the future are sociological experiments. The one that interested me most was the 170+ years in the future, when a group of fundamentalists and an AI disguised as Jesus take over a significant chunk of the eastern seaboard and set up their own little theocracy. Since he comes from a very secular world, Matt has a really hard time not getting into trouble. Little details like closed stacks in the MIT library and the T standing for theosophy instead of technology (and technology becoming a word so dirty that you can’t say it out loud). When I first came across this part of the book, I was afraid that I had managed to pick up Christian science fiction. Fortunately, with Fuller rebutting religious arguments with reason and science, that didn’t last long.
The ending of this very interesting book was a bit of a disappointment. All through the novel, Fuller and the graduate assistant that he picks up at the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy, are traveling forward to a time when time travel back to the past is possible. However, as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer people and no one else seems to have figured out the time travel thing. So it all comes down to a deus ex machina ending and a quick wrap up that reads like an epilogue.