The Time Ships

by Stephen Baxter

Cover image

Publisher: Eos
Copyright: 1995
Printing: June 2000
ISBN: 0-06-105648-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 521

Buy at Powell's Books

The Time Ships is written as a direct sequel to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine and gains some from having read that story recently. It's mostly readable without that background, however, particularly since the general shape of The Time Machine has entered popular culture and most people who might pick up this book will already be familiar with the outlines of the story.

Baxter picks up immediately where Wells left off, but from the perspective of the time traveller rather than the author of the earlier book. It tells the story of what happens when the Time Traveller, after recounting his story to his friends, returns to his machine and the future. In Baxter's novel, the purpose of that journey back into the future is to try to reverse what he believed happened to one of the Eloi near the end of the previous story.

However, a twist becomes immediately apparent. The Time Ships is written assuming something akin to the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum physics and uses it as the escape clause on time travel, meaning that every journey through time spawns a different alternative world and may throw the time traveller into a different parallel universe. Or, at least, this happens whenever it's convenient for the plot, but at other times the time traveller seems to manage to stay in the same universe. For all the exposition in this book, that distinction felt a bit underexplained. Regardless, this time the time traveller finds that the sun was surrounded by a Dyson sphere far earlier than the previous future he'd entered, the Eloi and Morlock separation didn't happen the same way, and the Morlocks of this new future are far different. What ensues is one of those "human being in a cage examined by aliens" scenes that science fiction seems so fond of and that I find so tedious.

This bifurcation of universes probably makes sense from a quantum physics perspective (insofar as time travel makes any sense at all), but I have huge problems with it as a plot driver. As Niven memorably observed in "All the Myriad Ways," the many-worlds hypothesis does nasty things to any sense of human agency. It avoids all time travel paradoxes by turning time travel into travel through alternative universes without any possibility of return, which changes the story into an exercise in tourism since no actions by any of the characters will have any real effect. Baxter hand-waves around this to try to give the protagonist some illusion of affecting reality, but whenever he does, he's working directly against the theoretical infrastructure of the story. As a result, once it was made clear that none of the universes could be truly affected by the events of the story, I lost a lot of interest in the actions of the characters.

What remains, given that limitation, would have to be a character-driven story, but that is a serious weak point for Baxter. Unless you really like philosophical meandering about the nature of choice and glorification of knowledge, or like watching an experimental scientist do an inferior and often angstful version of Robinson Crusoe (a depressing amount of this book takes place in the Paleocene), there is no character development here to speak of. The protagonist is Wells's protagonist run through a moderate filter of SF adventurer and given unrealistic survival skills. There is no romance sub-plot (a mixed blessing, since I doubt Baxter's ability to handle one), a very small cast of characters, only one notable supporting female character in the entire book, and a great deal of time spent on elaborate physical description and exposition with little emotional investment. There are authors who could pull this off. Baxter isn't one of them.

After a rather tedious exploration of the alternate future with the Morlock Dyson sphere, the next stop is an alternate reality in which World War I never ended, which is the point at which I lost my interest in Baxter's handling of alternate history. I realize there have been wars in history that have lasted thirty or forty years, but I find active continual trench warfare and continuous bombing of countries with poison gas lasting unceasingly for thirty years completely unbelievable. Baxter asks the reader to swallow a continuous total war scenario so grim that it's resulted in building concrete domes over all remaining European cities to protect them from poison gas, which for all its grand dystopian imagery strains credibility to the breaking point. From there, the story goes to the Paleocene Era, meanders through a survival story, and then moves into the grand vision of a sophisticated future consciousness for the human race.

This book is, in other words, a bit of classic SF planetary adventure, a bit of alternate history, some Defoe, and a lot of Stapledon tacked on to Wells, with neither Wells's economy and poetry of description nor Wells's motivating political point. If The Time Ships has a point, it's the typical SF moral of the wonders of knowledge and the unlimited capacity of the human race, which is ironic (to say the least) as a point to make via a sequel to The Time Machine. Baxter is clearly too intelligent to have missed Wells's point entirely, so I can only assume that he's attempting to counter it. But when he does so via a many-worlds alternate reality story, that counter becomes the weak argument of "everything might have gone better in some other reality!"

As you can tell, I was not fond of this book. I think it's poor literature and storytelling, supported by mostly uninteresting science. However, the one point on which Baxter did succeed is in capturing the event-level feel and narrative style of Wells. From the start, The Time Ships clearly is a sequel to The Time Machine, the dating of the language is surprisingly good, and the protagonist is recognizable throughout as the same person as Wells's time traveller. This is not easy to do, and Baxter did it well, albeit partly by giving the character little development or depth beyond what Wells already did at novella length.

That isn't enough to sustain a novel of over 500 pages. I've already been somewhat leery of Baxter based on his short fiction, which seemed long on sweep of time and short on soul, and The Time Ships has strengthened that opinion. My guess is that Baxter's current popularity is largely due to his ability to write a style of scientific adventure that's something of a throwback to the pulp era, or farther to Wells and Verne, but there's a reason why not many people write novels in that style. Stories that are long on big ideas but short on character and emotionally engrossing plot can work as short stories, but tend to fall flat as novels. Not many authors can successfully add the additional layer of social commentary that both Wells and Verne put into stories of that type. I got the feeling from this book that Baxter was trying for the same sense of wonder that Clarke sometimes managed, but without a memorable character and a poetic turn of phrase for the climactic grand visions of the universe, The Time Ships felt like Clarke with the wonder sucked out.

Despite winning the Campbell Memorial, Philip K. Dick, and British SF awards, The Time Ships is one to avoid.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-11-07

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21