The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
Published : HarperCollins UK/HarperPrism (1996)
Awards Won : British Science Fiction Association, John W. Campbell Memorial, and Philip K. Dick Awards
Awards Nominated : British Fantasy Society, Arthur C. Clarke, Hugo and Locus SF Awards
The Book :
“After H.G. Wells’s time traveler returns from his first journey, he is determined to head back to rescue his companion Weena from the deadly Morlocks. However, as he travels forward in time, he finds that he is no longer passing through the same future. Faced with the proof that history is not as concrete and unchangeable as he would have liked to believe, the time traveler moves into a world that baffles his comprehension.
Instead of fighting Morlocks, a gentle scientist and nursemaid Morlock, Nebogipfel, becomes his companion. They travel through the eons together, altering both future and past as they struggle to survive and to see what the future might become. Also, somewhere within the multitude of realities created by their travel through time, a frightened Weena is still being lost to the Morlocks of that original dark future.” ~Allie
This is the first of Baxter’s works that I’ve reviewed for this blog, but I have read a fair amount of his short and long fiction in the past. In general, I’m a fan of his work, so I was happy to finally get around to reading this highly acclaimed novel. Sadly, I finished this book in December 2013, so it’s not eligible for any of my 2014 challenges. My next two reviews, of The Shadow of the Torturer and Fairyland, are also not going to be considered eligible. I finished them in January/February of 2014, but I started reading them both in December 2013. I’m starting the year a bit behind in challenges, but I hope I’ll be able to catch up soon!
The Time Ships is a direct sequel to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and I do think it would be necessary to read that first—though I imagine most people with an interest in science fiction will have already read it! The Time Ships is told from the point of view of the Time Traveler, and Baxter even mimics the voice of the first novel somewhat, with its stiff Victorian prose and plenitude of exclamation points! There’s also plenty of discussion of the nature of time travel, as well as other scientific or philosophical topics, so The Time Ships also keeps up with Wells’s dryness. At first, I wasn’t sure if this style was going to work in a modern piece of fiction, but, in my opinion, Baxter managed to make it seem charmingly reminiscent of Wells while still telling a fun story about interesting characters.
The novel followed Wells’s style in some ways, but it also provided a more modern view of its time-traveling Victorian explorer hero. I enjoyed the protagonist more that I usually do with this character type, and I think part of the reason may have been that the story constantly acknowledged his arrogance and small-mindedness. I felt that the story managed to show him as an admirable person who was also a product of his time and culture, without minimizing the flaws that this implied. I also enjoyed how his adventures forced him to confront his prejudices and preconceptions, forcing him to grow little by little. The story also benefited greatly from its secondary hero, the Morlock Nebogipfel. While Nebogipfel’s culture is nothing like our own, his attitude often seemed closer to a modern ideal than the Time Traveler’s. Nebogipfel has his own flaws, but he tries very hard to be understanding and patient with the Time Traveler’s shortcomings. Together, the two of them made a team that I was happy to follow in their journeys through the ages of the Earth.
Though the style can sometimes be a bit dry, and there are many side discussions, I think that The Time Ships is a pretty exciting time travel story. I thought it was a neat idea to update The Time Machine’s time travel to the more current multiple-universe idea, and I appreciated that the novel stuck to its in-universe rules. The Time Traveler and Nebogipfel range widely in their travels, and experience more than either of them could have expected. We get to see the planet’s deep past, its far future, several different civilizations, and even the effects of the development of time travel on the course of histories. All of this fits together logically and narratively with the personal story of Nebogipfel and the Time Traveler, and the conclusion brings the story full circle.
My Rating: 4/5
I think that The Time Ships is a worthy sequel to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and it manages to tell a very different sort of story while still linking to the previous novel. I appreciated the acknowledgement of the Time Traveler’s flaws, and the addition of the more enlightened Morlock protagonist Nebogipfel. I liked the use of the multiple-universe theory of time travel, and how the story followed the branches of different futures caused by the actions of the protagonists. There is a lot of scientific and philosophical discussion throughout the story, but I found most of it quite interesting. In the end, I can see why this one ended up on the radar for so many awards!