Joe Haldeman: “The Accidental Time Machine” (c) 2007.

Joe Haldeman is an American science fiction writer, best known for his sci fi classic novel “The Forever War” (1974) which won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. Haldeman is a Vietnam War veteran, and that experience became the basis for his sci fi novels.

Haldeman has received a number of major awards for his sci fi stories, including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for “Forever Peace” (1998); and the James Tiptree Award for “Camouflage” (2005).

Haldeman is also a poet and won the Rhysling Award (1991) for the best short science fiction poem of the year.  See“Eighteen years old, October eleventh”.

In 2009 he received The Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master award; in 2010 the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award ; and in 2012 he was inducted into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.


“The Accidental Time Machine” by Joe Haldeman (c) 2007

This is a short novel about time travel into the future: The story begins in ~2058, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Matt Fuller is a physics research assistant at MIT, studying quantum forces related to time changes in gravity and electromagnetic forces. For unknown reasons, the calibrator machine turns into a time machine – it disappears and reappears at longer time intervals. Its reappearance occurs at a predictable time in the future, and also at a predictable place. It can only travel into the future. The calibrator is an anomaly, an accidental time machine, as copies of it behave as calibrators only. Matt uses his calibrator/time machine to transport himself to future times, ends up in different places on Earth, and visits the moon. Eventually … he is able to return to Cambridge … in 1898….


“The Accidental Time Machine”  by Joe Haldeman

In ~2058, Matt Fuller is a physics research assistant at MIT, working on quantum force measurements relating to time changes in gravity and electromagnetic forces. He observes that each time he hits the reset button on the calibrator, it disappears and reappears at a later time. Matt does a number of initial experiments and calculations and notes that the calibrator reappears at longer time intervals which are predictable. It can only travel into the future and its “landing location” also changes through time.

Matt constructs another calibrator but the second calibrator does not disappear like the first one. Some accidental feature of the first machine has turned it into a time machine. The calibrator is the size of a shoe-box and anything metallic that is attached to its metallic frame travels with the machine and returns. Matt sends a turtle, Herman, in a metal pan bound to the calibrator. Herman returns alive and well, together with the calibrator in ~ 3 days. Herman becomes history’s first time traveler or “chrononaut”.

Matt borrows his good friend Denny’s 1956 Ford Thunderbird, which will act like a metal cage. Inside the car, Matt clips the time machine to the car’s metal chassis and pushes the reset button. He finds himself immersed in a grayness and in the very next instant, he lands in rush hour traffic in Cambridge. The police arrest him for murder and auto theft! A stranger posts bail for Matt. Quickly, Matt writes up a report for Dr Marsh, his research adviser. He convinces the police to let him check the Ford Thunderbird for some personal items. The time machine is still attached to the chassis. Matt pushes the reset button and disappears!

Fifteen years later, in 2074 Matt reappears in the middle of a stadium not far from Cambridge. He gets a hero’s welcome: His adviser Dr. Marsh figured out from his notes when and where Matt would reappear. Matt is recognized as the inventor of the machine, but Dr. Marsh takes the credit for the idea of this strange type of time travel. Marsh receives the 2072 Nobel Prize in Chronophysics. Matt is given a PhD and professorship at MIT. But Matt decides to continue his time travel journeys. When an experiment is planned, Matt seizes the opportunity to “re-calibrate” the time machine – he clips the machine to a taxi and hits the reset button. Matt and the taxi vanish.

Matt “jumps” 177 years into the future, into the 23rd century. He lands not far from Boston. The roads are in a state of ruin, with many abandoned cars. People are living as in the 19th century. Buildings and shops have not been maintained, and street vendors sell clothes, food, and other items. His own appearance – wrinkled clothes, toolkit, blanket – fit in well with the rest of the people on the streets. People get around on mule-drawn carts and bicycles.

He learns that Massachusetts is a theocracy, since the second coming of Jesus more than 70 years ago. MIT is now the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy. But Matt is puzzled because there are signs of high tech as well – there are AI robots at the MIT library, although there are no data stations. There must also be some means of mass production of bibles, and text books .

At the MIT library, he meets Father Hogarty and a graduate assistant Martha. The library AI database identified him as Dr. Matthew Fuller — the full professor they have been waiting for. Matt will be teaching natural philosophy classes and Martha, the graduate assistant is assigned to help him. Father Hogarty has no idea what Matt means by space-time, mass, quantum states, weak interactive forces. He asks what does all that have to do with Jesus? Why is it scholarly?

When he meets the Dean of the faculty, however, they talk about time travel. And Matt finds himself thinking about time travel theories. Could he be in a Godel strange loop? Why had the graviton/photon calibrator turned into a time machine? What if some other traveler from the future had come and modified the machine?

Matt is summoned to meet Jesus at the Faculty Chapel. A holographic projection of “Jesus” appears,and orders Matt to destroy the time machine. Matt plans to escape immediately. Martha and Matt barely escape: Matt clips the time machine to an open metal bank vault and hits the reset button.

Their jump takes them further into the future, to ~4100. Matt and Martha step out from the vault onto a manicured lawn of a suburban home. They are in California, in what was once New Mexico.

An android-like projection or entity, called La, recognizes Matt as Matthew Fuller, assistant to the physicist Jonathan Marsh. La explains she is an AI specifically created & engineered to run & maintain California. She is interested in the time machine for her own reasons. She explains to Matt why the calibrator is working as a time machine.

For some reason, the graviton generator in Matt’s machine is broken; it’s putting out an immense number of gravitons instead of one graviton per photon. In Matt’s century, the space-time continuum is a four-dimensional brane (string theory) and his broken graviton generator has somehow become enveloped in a five-dimensional brane. Something in that brane is connected to a huge singularity (or black hole) and the calibrator is moving faster and faster to the “end of time”. La wants to reach that time when stars die, black holes evaporate, everything stops moving.

Matt discovers that there are other time travelers. La tells Matt and Martha that the “Jesus” figure in Massachusetts was actually one of their own AI. And that she and others have been following Matt’s journey. La can take them safely into the “next” future, in a spaceship using their time machine. Somewhere in that future Matt and Martha can return to the past in a reverse time machine from the future technology. La herself wants to go on  to time’s end.

A “Jesus” hologram appears to warn both Matt and Martha to keep an eye on La, when they travel together into the future. The machine only works when Matt is the one to push the button. The “Jesus” figure will find them in whatever time and space they are in.

La, Matt and Mathew travel together in La’s spaceship. Matt hits the reset button on the calibrator and they arrive 24,000 years into the future: They land in Indonesia but it is now a Jurassic-type land with bio-engineered dinosaurs . They fly to Australia, where an Australian-accented human-projection meets them. No time travelers are allowed as the last one brought the flu. The Australians do not have any working time machines currently.

Their next jump takes La, Matt and Martha into Earth’s orbit into the future of ~ 320,000 AD. They return to Australia, only to find no trace of life. There are only ruins, ashes and radiation, and an obelisk– a mathematical Rosetta Stone. La decodes the writing on the obelisk, and they learn that another time traveler had put up the obelisk. Earth was devastated by “Truth Wars” and no humans live on Earth now.

Their next attempt to find humans is on the Moon, which had been colonized. But here also they find only ruins. “Jesus” tells Matt and Martha to return to Earth, but La wants to travel to the end of time. She threatens to kill Martha. But Matt remains adamant . They jump another 3 million years into the future and land in Australia.

“Jesus” or Jesse, and his companions appear. They are actually time machines themselves. They have been tracking and helping Matt since he first traveled into the future. Matt cannot die in the future as the universe would not survive!

Jesse pops out the virtual graviton from the calibrator, replaces it with the correct graviton part, sets the time machine so that La can now operate it, and she takes off alone. The machine is set to travel asymptotically and La will continue to travel “eternally”, never really reaching the end of time!

Jesse sets up another virtual graviton generator to take Matt and Martha back to Cambridge. When Matt and Martha land in Cambridge, it is 1898. MIT is in Boston, before it was moved to Cambridge later.

A new life begins for Matt and Martha: They get married, and Matt takes classes in math and physics. The early 20th century courses in math & physics reinforce his knowledge from his own college days in 2050s. He is careful not to reveal anything about his more advanced knowledge. Matt studies German and in 1900 when Max Planck published his paper that would eventually lead to quantum mechanics, Matt was the first person at MIT to read it and explain it to others .

Matt goes on to get degrees in physics and MIT sends him to Harvard to get his PhD. He returns to MIT and becomes a full professor there in 1915. When Einstein publishes his theories on Relativity, Matt is brilliant in lectures at explaining the underlying math and physics theory, but he keeps his own publications ordinary, and he is careful not to arouse any suspicion about his true background.

He dies in 1969, watching Apollo’s landing on the Moon. His last words are puzzling as he recalls having been to the moon. In 2072, his great-great-grandson, Jonathan Marsh, wins the 2072 Nobel Prize for discovery of a curious form of time travel….