The Accidental Time Machine

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The Accidental Time Machine is a science-fiction novel by Joe Haldeman that was published in 2007.[1] The novel was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2007,[2] and the Locus Award in 2008.[3]

The Accidental Time Machine
Author Joe Haldeman
Country United States
Language English
Publisher ACE BOOKS
Publication date
Media type Print (soft cover)
Pages 275 pp (mass market edition)

Plot summary[edit]

Matthew Fuller, a research assistant at MIT, accidentally invents a time machine while attempting to construct a calibrator to measure the relationships between gravity and light. Unfortunately, it will only travel forward, to the future, in ever-increasing intervals of 12x. On the fifth jump, which sends him forward a few months, he gets arrested for the alleged murder of a drug dealer who actually had a heart attack when he witnessed Matt disappear in his time machine. He is shortly bailed out by someone who can only be from the future, and is left a note urging him to depart in the time machine quickly. He continues forward in time 15 years and upon re-materializing finds that Professor Marsh, his tutor, has taken credit for the time travel invention and subsequently won the Nobel Prize.

Finding no place in this new time, Matt jumps once again into the future and finds himself in a 23rd-century theocracy. Upon arriving, Matt meets a woman named Martha who is assigned to be his servant in the future MIT - the initials now stand for "Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy" and any physics taught there must fit within a neo-Medieval cosmology. This society is dominated by religious fervor. Matt is discovered as being uncircumcised (something that is mandatory in this new and strictly Christian-dominated society - and ironically, Matt, who is an assimilated Jew, did not undergo it). He must flee into the future once again, now accompanied by the loyal Martha.

Matt and Martha arrive several thousand years in the future, just outside of California, in a society where all of humanity is wealthy and satisfied to a point of complete apathy. It is here that they encounter an artificial intelligence that controls Los Angeles, called La. La is curious about her own mortality, and having learned about Matt’s time machine from historical records, wishes to join him on a journey to the end of time (heat death of the universe) to discover if she can die.

At this point, Matt and Martha begin to receive subliminal messages from future versions of Matt, and Martha naively mistakes them to be from Jesus. He/they warn Matt and Martha of La’s willingness to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of her goal, and advises them to stall for time to allow the future Matts to catch up. Matt and Martha, accompanied by La in a spacecraft, begin to travel further and further into the future, discovering radically altered futures and entirely new species of intelligent life, including androgynous evolutions of humanity and a race of intelligent bears.

After a confrontation where they narrowly avoid being killed by La, they meet the people who have been sending them subliminal messages. These beings send Matt and Martha back in time, while allowing La to continue jumping forward in time. The beings can specify either the exact time or the exact location to which Matt and Martha will be sent, but not both (this limitation is similar to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). Concerned about the couple possibly materializing in the middle of the ocean or inside of a mountain, they opt to be specific about location and send them to MIT.

When they arrive, they find that it is the late 19th century, and the main MIT campus in Cambridge has not yet been built. Having no other option, they live in this society, where Matt studies and teaches physics, aided significantly by his advanced knowledge both of physics and historical events. However, he takes care not to change history - for example, he does not anticipate Einstein in "discovering" Relativity Theory, as he could have easily done; rather, he takes care to appear a talented but not outstanding professor. Matt and Martha have several children, and the end of the book reveals that Professor Marsh (Matt's MIT professor in the mid-21st century) is actually Matt's descendant.


Science and religion[edit]

Matt, a physics graduate student, establishes himself as an atheist very early on in the novel, through sarcastic references to God and by referring to himself as an “Ex-Reform Jew atheist (95)”, and an “atheist non-practicing Jew”. The strongest representation of this theme takes place in the theocratic society Matt visits on his fourth jaunt through time. It is in this time period that Matt meets Martha, a graduate assistant, at a future MIT where the "T" stands for Theosophy rather than Technology. In this section, a man tells Matt that everything has changed when Jesus returned. We eventually learn that the State has used hologram technology to fool everyone into thinking that Jesus has returned, and uses a mix of technology and religion to maintain its control.

When Matt first encounters Martha she devoutly believes in God, though as she and Matt travel through time she becomes less and less sure of her beliefs, saying, when introduced to sex, “I’m not sure I [believe] anymore, either (233)". Near the end of his time in the theocratic time period, Matt meets a version of Jesus that only appears in holographic form. Later in the novel, a “holy land” is mentioned as being cordoned off by killer satellites called “Avenging Angels". This section characterizes how totalitarian societies may corrupt religious principles to exert control over the masses. Or, it may be read as a criticism of the radical measures a repressive religious society will take to control its citizens and maintain its beliefs.

Relationship with technology[edit]

The character La represents to the extreme the troubling relationship between humans and technology. La is an omniscient machine that controls Los Angeles. La can be in all places at all times, much like God, which is an interesting parallel. Though La is a machine, she can more accurately be described as a hybrid between humanity and technology. La illustrates her human side by wanting to time travel so far into the future to see if she will die; she wants to experience mortality, a very human trait. The fact that the Jesus in the theocratic time period is a hologram represents the way in which technology can exercise its power over humanity by offering salvation in a false savior figure.


  • Matt Fuller - protagonist, MIT lab assistant / graduate student
  • Professor Jonathon Marsh - MIT professor, also Matt Fuller's boss
  • Kara - Matt Fuller's girlfriend, later ex-girlfriend
  • Strom - Matt Fuller's replacement, Kara's new boyfriend/husband
  • Denny Peposi - Matt's former drug dealer
  • Herman (the time traveling turtle) - the first "Chrononaut"
  • Father Hogarty - MIT professor in theocracy
  • Martha - MIT graduate assistant, Matt's time travel companion
  • Mose & Ruth - Theocracy citizens
  • La - Omniscient machine
  • Em & Arle - "Barterocracy" citizens (see below)
  • Time Travelling Jesus/Jesse - Time traveler aiding Matt, Martha and La

Matt's time machine[edit]

The accidental time machine is a metal box with an oak base that was originally created to be a calibrator, but something malfunctioned in another dimension and caused it to time travel when the reset button was hit. It travels roughly in exponents of 11.8 only in a forward direction. It is not capable of being duplicated, and appears to be unique.

Timeline and list of societies[edit]

  • February 2, 2059: Matt's first time jump - 39 days. Appears in the middle of the street, still in Boston. He is then arrested for murder and grand theft auto. He is bailed out of jail by a mysterious figure.
  • May 15, 2060: 465 days later. Appears in the middle of a highway, quickly time travels again to avoid being crushed by a truck.
  • 2074: 15 years later. Matt appears in the middle of a stadium called the "Matthew Fuller Sports Centre". The society is fairly futuristic (with trends like facial scarring), but they do not fully understand the time machine. However, scientific theories are being rewritten because of Matt's time machine.
  • 2252: 177 years later. Matt finds himself by the New Hampshire border in a theocratic society. There had been an event billed as the Second Coming of Jesus, followed by a nuclear civil war between those who believed its veracity and those who doubted it, and with the former group taking power in the eastern part of the US. History has essentially been erased and restarted. The locals refer to the year as 71.
  • 4346: 2094 years later. Matt and Martha arrive in what appears to be a Utopia. The society is based on bartering, is focused on material wealth and there is no poverty or illness. It is highly futuristic/technological and is controlled by an entity called La.
  • 24,000 years later. Martha, La, and Matt land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Indonesia, and eventually encounter bioengineered dinosaurs. They continue south to Australia where they are greeted by a hologram, which doesn't allow them to enter the society because they are afraid of disease transmitted by travelers from the past. They travel to America and meet strange bear-like people.
  • 320,000 years. Travel to the moon because there is no life left on Earth. There is only a strange mechanical creature there when they arrive.
  • 3.5 million years later. The couple meet up with six time travelers who send Martha and Matt back to 1898, and La continues forward.
  • 1898. Martha and Matt are back in Boston, from which point they would live out the rest of their lives with no further time traveling.

Parallelisms and comparisons with H.G. Wells' Time Machine[edit]

Haldeman refers to H.G. Wells' classic novel The Time Machine in a brief reference about its protagonist and the Morlock creatures encountered while time traveling (The Accidental Time Machine page 15). The title of Haldeman’s novel itself is both an allusion to and a play on the title of Wells’ novel. The major difference is that Wells’ protagonist purposefully constructs his time machine, while Haldeman’s character simply stumbles upon it.


  • Both have innocent/ignorant female characters who are saved by the male protagonist
  • Both have Caucasian, middle-class, heterosexual protagonists who are scientific experts that travel forwards in time by themselves. Furthermore, both seem to belong in the 1890s, which is where Wells’ Time Traveler starts and Matt Fuller ends.
  • Both illustrate human devolution in the future
  • Both have negative consequence of stagnation (indicative that if a society lapses into complete comfort, devolution occurs)
  • Both have doubtful exterior influences:
    • Wells' Time Machine: the Time Traveller is doubted by his peers
    • Accidental Time Machine: Matt is doubted by Professor Marsh
  • Both encounter seemingly Utopian societies, but quickly realize that they are in fact dystopian
  • Both are social commentaries on possible avenues humankind could take on the road to devolution
  • Both critique society, albeit in different forms. In The Time Machine, it is in the form of the dinner guests as vehicles of satire. In The Accidental Time Machine, Haldeman uses the different time periods to critique topics such as religion, nature, and so on.
  • Both protagonists and the concept of time travel are doubted by those around them in the time periods that they originate from.
  • Both time machines work, but with some uncertainty and are vulnerable to theft and breakage


  • The time machine is discovered accidentally in Haldeman’s novel, while it is consciously constructed by the time traveler in Wells’ narrative
  • The Time Machine focuses on class divisions while The Accidental Time Machine focuses on religious and political issues

Real-world references[edit]


“He broke a large Ritalin in two and swallowed one half...This would be an all-nighter” (17). Ritalin is a common brand name for the drug methylphenidate. It acts as a central nervous system stimulant, similar in structure to amphetamines and cocaine. Methylphenidate is most commonly prescribed for conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and narcolepsy. Effects include: increased mental alertness; improved attention and focus; and resistance to fatigue. Abuse of prescription stimulants is higher amongst college students than non-college attending young adults. College students use methylphenidate either as a study aid or to stay awake longer. In being similar (in structure and effect) to “speedy” drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, methylphenidate is often referred to, simply, as “speed.”


The novel heavily references the work of Max Planck, Albert Einstein and the theory of Special Relativity.

The Nobel Prize[edit]

One of Matt's primary concerns upon discovering the time machine is his legacy as a scientist. He is particularly concerned about keeping his discovery secret, so that he can be a candidate for a Nobel Prize, as a means to scientific notoriety. He later tells his employer, Dr. Marsh, about the time machine, after being arrested for the murder of his drug dealer and friend, Denny Pelosi. Matt's third time jump takes him 15 years into the future, where he discovers that Dr. Marsh has won the Nobel Prize for discovering the phenomenon, which has been dubbed the "Marsh Effect".

The Nobel Prize was established by Alfred Nobel, and is awarded annually for scientific and cultural achievement. It is considered a significant honor to be awarded one. In the novel, the Nobel Prize serves as a symbol of permanence and significance in the novel, and a way of allegorically traveling to the future, and contributing to posterity in a meaningful way. However, the value of this symbol quickly dissolves into meaninglessness the further into the future Matt travels, in parallel with the increasing absurdity and meaninglessness associated with scientific study. The epilogue sees Matt as a professor at MIT, content to remain obscure and unremarkable, perhaps undermining contemporary valuation of scientific legacy.

MIT, Boston, and Massachusetts[edit]

Haldeman references real-world places to create a visual map for reader to situate the plot. Boston is the main city that is heavily involved in the narrative. When Matt decides to try the time machine himself after a few experiments, he estimates that he will land near the Boston Harbor. Furthermore, Massachusetts Avenue (referred to as "Mass Ave") is frequently travelled by Matt, and is the location where he materializes after he time travels for the first time. Mass Ave joins many municipalities and areas in Massachusetts together such as Cambridge and Arlington, which Matt travels to, and includes real-world landmarks Matt sees such as Harvard Square, Inman Square, Kendall Square and Porter Square.

There are also many references to MIT such as the Green Building which no longer exists in the theocratic future. The Green Building houses the laboratories Matt originally worked in, as well as where he discovers the time machine and eventually steals it. Additionally, the Infinite Corridor and Building 1 are MIT buildings that still exist when Matt goes to his alma mater 177 years later. At the end of the novel, the authors also mention's MIT's original founding location on Boylston Street in Back Bay, Boston.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology - an institution of which the writer has a considerable personal knowledge, as a longtime teacher of writing at MIT - has an important role in various parts of the book. Matt manages to become a full MIT Professor in three separate periods - in its mid-21st Century incarnation, only slightly removed from the present; in its 23rd Century theocratic role; and lastly (from Matt's point of view), in its late 19th- and early 20th-century origins. The institution is described with considerable affection and much "insider" knowledge of the hidden corners in the MIT campus, of the relations between students and lecturers, and of various wild and rather illicit student practices.

Critical reception[edit]

The Accidental Time Machine was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2007, and a Locus Award in 2008.


  1. ^ " The Accidental Time Machine: Joe Haldeman: Books". Retrieved 2009-01-25. 
  2. ^ "2007 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 
  3. ^ "2008 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 

External links[edit]