Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Time Ships

I have been a fan of Stephen Baxter’s short fiction for nearly two decades, including his wondrous collection Resplendent. But, for some unexplained reason, I have never read any of his novels previously. I decided to start with The Time Ships, since it is a standalone novel while many of his others fall into various series. It was also an award-winning novel, taking the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1996.

The Time Ships is a direct sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, beginning soon after the nameless Time Traveler’s return to late 19th century England, so a knowledge of that earlier novel is necessary to fully appreciate what takes place in Baxter’s novel. But considering that The Time Machine is one of the seminal novels in sf, it is hard to imagine readers of this blog not having read it at some point in their lives. And if you have not read it, why not? Wells is the father of science fiction, and all of his early novels are worth reading for several reasons: their historical value to the sf field, their introduction of most of sf’s major themes and, most importantly, they are all damned good novels. Both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are necessary reading, but nearly as important are The Invisible Man, The Food of the Gods, The Island of Doctor Moreau, In the Days of the Comet and The First Men in The Moon.

But great as Wells was, a direct sequel to one of his novels would be boring if it were merely more of the same, especially at 500+ pages. Fortunately, Stephen Baxter is much too good a writer to fall into that trap. A Baxter story is typically based on a scientific notion whose philosophical and speculative effects he then examines. In The Time Ships the narrator (the time traveler) returns to the future but encounters a totally different future than he found on his first trip. The Morlocks are no longer degenerate humans, but a race which is highly-advanced both technologically and philosophically. After spending time there, he escapes back to the 19th century with one of the Morlocks named Nebogipfel where they meet the young narrator in 1873 and ultimately the three of them are trapped in 1938 during the 24th year of a brutal world war which began between England and Germany in 1914.

The Time Ships is primarily concerned with the many worlds theory of Physics, which postulates that every action a person performs creates several possible universes, in each of which the person actually performed a different action, or else the one action caused several different possible outcomes. This theory is discussed by the narrator and Nebogipfel at length–and Baxter’s discussions are invariably fascinating reading–and mathematician Kurt Godel even shows up as a character in the book. The narrator’s adventures during the Morlock-dominated future are interesting, but even better are when he and Nebogipfel return first to the 19th century, then to 1938, and eventually fifty million years in the past where they create a new settlement of trapped humans which they name First London.

Most of the novel is fascinating reading, both because of Baxter’s story-telling skills, but also for the interplay between the narrator and Nebogipfel who serves as a brilliant mentor to the narrator’s simple student. While The Time Ships is not a classic as was its prequel The Time Machine, it is still very interesting and always enjoyable reading, and I recommend it highly.


  • Baxter is another author I have not tried. It might be time to re-read The Time Machine and follow it up with this one.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 1:35 PM  

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