Look at me, reading another science fiction book from this century. I’ve seen this billed as a grittier, modern take on HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and I think that’s somewhat apt. So apt, in fact, that if you’re thinking of reading The Accidental Time Machine, I suggest you just go read Wells’ original, instead.
For the first few chapters, I was actually very excited about this book. I was not a fan of the drug-addicted graduate student lab tech protagonist, with his primal preoccupations and irritating immaturity, but I was willing to give that a pass as an appeal to a broader audience, because for the first part of the book it seemed like it was otherwise just what science fiction should be. I mean, there were actually experiments taking place, being described in detail. Ideas about scientific rigor and reproducibility were being explored. I was very excited.
Then it was time to conduct the next experiment, and everything went downhill from the point that the time machine was connected to a car. When the time travelling starts, the science stops, and I don’t just mean that the science behind the time travel is never fully explained in even an in-world sense. By the time that the first multi-year jump occurs, all semblance of experiment is sacrificed, and it becomes an adventure story, and not a very interesting one at that. The theological apocalypse with its technologically derived Second Coming has strong The Stand overtones, and an even stronger anti-religion polemic. While I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person, and have never been disturbed by treatments of religion in literature, I found the author’s blatant derision for anything like belief off-putting, mostly for being so one-sided. Our single “pro-religion” character is presented as a naïve primitive who needs to be educated into a better way.
After that, we get the extra-generic post-scarcity society that we’ve encountered in so many other pieces of literature. There is a reason that this is almost always confined to a short story format – it is very, very hard to pull of an interesting story in a post scarcity setting, and the author was not up to the challenge. We get some hand waving explanations about fusion power and atomic synthesis, and then jump to the AI personality that wants to use the time machine to commit suicide.
Nor does the story improve from there, but I will refrain from spoiling what becomes the main conflict, in case you decide to read the book. Sometimes, I think I really am just an old curmudgeon, and that I don’t like any of these new science fiction books because I am predisposed against them. Yet I went into this book really wanting to like it, and I was excited by its beginning. I was willing to look past the unnecessary unsavoriness of the protagonist, and the superfluously gritty world-building, to what began as a really good piece of science fiction. Yet, to me, it all fell apart after the first human time travel, and I ended up disappointed…yet again. Maybe one of these days I will find a new piece of science fiction that I enjoy, but this was not quite it.
Oh, and one last note: I may not have enjoyed this book, but I did find one line in it very resonant. “Any great relationship is a conspiracy of two.”