Fiction Reviews

The Accidental Time Machine

(2007) Joe Haldeman, Ace, 5.99 / Can$8.99 / US$7.99, pbk, pp260, ISBN 978-0-441-01616-7


This is Joe Haldeman doing Dr. Who.

Though this came out in 2007 in N. America in hardback, the paperback did not appear until 2008 and it was not until the end of that year that copies could be seen in British SF bookshops and one suspects also in Australasia and other parts of the Anglophone world.

Joe Haldeman himself is well known for many novels and particularly for The Forever War which is of course in Essential SF and was a couple of years ago cited by Gollancz as an all time top SF novel. In short this man is a steady source of solid SF with occasional classics thrown in for good measure. In this novel, as alluded to with the title, he returns to time travel.

The set up is quite straightforward: a research student constructs a piece of equipment that accidentally turns out to be a time machine. The problem is that the machine seems to have some sort of logarithmic function and so disappears for just a few seconds to begin with and then moves forward in time in ever-larger leaps. What's more, though initially bound by Earth's frame (Haldeman does not use the term) it moves in space at first a short distance and then logarithmically longer until it ends up in space. This means that the time machine's own chassis can be quite simple early on in the novel but needs to be souped-up later. One big problem is the machine cannot go back in time!

So why is this Joe Haldeman doing Dr. Who? Well our protagonist on his fourth jump acquires an assistant. Also, while the first jumps are typically mundane in familiar territory, the later jumps move to futures radically different from our own present. Then again when he acquires his souped-up chassis - a small spacecraft - it appears bigger on the inside than the outside. There is even a mechanical monster, though not a Dalek. The similarities with Dr. Who are just too striking. Heck, the protagonist even gets a doctorate and a professorship.

All in all this is an engaging tale: which is as you would expect from this author. Joe Haldeman has, with time travel, also returned to a theme he has used before such as in The Coming and of course (due to near light-speed relativistic effects) in The Forever War, though neither of these are close to Who. I should also say that The Accidental Time Machine is also a bit of a page-turner: I did two thirds in a single sitting.

Jonathan Cowie

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