Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships is the authorised sequel to H. G. Well’s The Time Machine.
How does this ship fare?
The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter is pretty poor as a sequel to the original The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. This is mostly because the the Time Traveller displayed very different characteristics in each book, and the underlying messages and meanings in the original were not followed through. Indeed, the only ties between the two books were contrived references at the start of the novel and the Time Traveller’s attempt to rescue Weena at the end.
As a novel in its own right, this is brilliant! Yes, it is clearly Baxter-esque with his Baxterisms of astro-engineering and Watchers etc., but there is some great science, and of course, elements of time travel.
Whilst multiple and alternate universes are core to this novel, it didn’t strike me as an easy get out of jail free card as used in several other time travel novels (e.g. The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma). Actually, the idea was followed through really nicely and was internally logical and consistent with a brilliant ‘application’ at the time-space singularity at the beginning of time.
The main character is a complete and utter pillock which for made for me some pretty angry reading (I must admit that in the first person I was reading Baxter as the Time Traveller) but at the same time I think it helped to nurture a real fondness for Nebogipfel through whom Baxter expresses his fascinating insights.
Although this novel deserves 0/5 stars as a sequel to The Time Machine, I’m giving The Time Ships a full 5 stars as a time travel novel in its own right.
A new approach
I’m going to try something new with this review – I’m going to write it as I read…pseudo live, if you like!
Perhaps I should first confess that I’m approaching The Time Ships with a little bit of prejudice…not simply that I’ve already read The Time Machine (and The Chronic Argonauts – arguably the predecessor to The Time Machine), but also that I’ve read some of Baxter’s works before and find many of them immensely irritating.
This is because (subjectively speaking) I find much of his writing has googled science crow-barred into patronising narrative, as well as more than a few prods to NASA, which is probably related to him not being selected as an astronaut.
Anyway. Let’s see how this goes!
OK. So I’ve read The Map of Time which depicts a fictitious story around H. G. Wells, and I was moved to (re)read The Time Machine as it’s written in first person, implying, in a way, that the main character is Wells himself, and now I know a little bit more about him.
I’ve also read The Chronic Argonauts (a very short story written by Wells, and predating The Time Machine) which some argue forms the basis of the more well known novel.
* The Time Ships commences with an “Editors note” to introduce the novel itself as part of a bigger picture. This reminds me of The Planet of the Apes by *Pierre Boullon which also starts (and finishes) in a similar manner.
* Baxter is trying to stay close to Well’s first person style of writing and using archaic and flowery language. I’m finding it a little unnatural and it reads almost like a young child’s description of events. I went here. I did that. I then found this… and so on. Actually, it’s a bit like Fred Hoyle’s dreadful style of writing (e.g. In October the First is too Late; The Black Cloud). Nice ideas, but you get rushed through.
* Baxter clearly has a copy of The Time Machine next to him. He’s pulling out small occurrences from the Time Traveller’s dinner with his friends, and forcing them them into the narrative to give an impression of continuity. I know it’s a sequel…I don’t need to be rudely prodded as a reminder and have it spelled out.
* Ah, the mechanics of the time travel! There’s a nice idea about twisting the 4 dimensions such that the temporal dimension lies on a spatial axis, meaning that motion through time can be achieved in much the same way as motion through space. A physical twisting of time.
The Time Taveller therefore feels dizzy when he time travels because he’s being twisted and subjected to centrifugal and Coriolis forces.
At first I thought this was stupid as he’s not physically twisting, and certainly, Coriolis force in some ways is the (imaginary) force opposing centrifugal force (also imaginary)…
Centrifugal force is simply an object obeying Newton’s first law of motion and that it will move in an straight line at constant speed unless an external force (such as a twist) is applied to it. Coriolis force is the apparent force that an object seems to follow when it’s linear motion is viewed from a rotating frame. So you have one and not the other – you can’t be flung out from rotation in a straight line (centrifugal force) whilst experiencing Coriolis force which acts to give you a lateral motion (measureable from the rotating frame that you’re being flung out from!).
* Second thoughts, I might let Baxter off. Centrifugal and Coriolis forces are 2 different ways of describing the same thing, but from two different (reference) viewpoints. A bit like time and space! OK…I’m now thinking it was a clever idea!
* The time machine itself is powered by a substance called Plattnerite – a substance delivered by a mysterious visitor. Much as I don’t like the idea of a fuel cell of some description to activate time travel, I’m toying with the idea that this mysterious visitor will be seen later on in the novel!
And into the far future…
* There seems to be an over-play of how bad Morlocks are. I think this is again another reference to the original book, but here it’s not fitting, and I should think that such prejudiced feelings from the Time Traveller are not in keeping with the original character.
* And here we are…Baxter hasn’t let us down with his precious Gaijin. Page 34 (of 630) and the Time Traveller is faced with A Watcher. So the Gaijin are back.
* I’m getting quite angry. The Time Traveller is behaving like a complete and utter prick towards a Morlock who is clearly looking after him. This is not in keeping with the original character, though I should confess I’m probably most upset because I prefer to identify with characters (especially in first person novels), whereas this one is more like a stroppy teenager than the thoughtful and respectful scientist of the original book. For example, whilst there may be a hint of shame, there’s no real apology or outward show of remorse when he’s told that he’s killed children.
No wonder the Morlocks appointed him a day carer. That’s a nice touch!
Still. I’m going to make a deliberate effort to read this book as a separate piece of work, rather than as a sequel with consistent characters and characteristics. I know that’s not in the spirit of the book, but then again, this book seems to be more of a piece of dodgy fan fiction than a sequel…
“We have harnessed a star.”
* And now comes Baxter’s idea of the future – astronomical engineering, just like in his Manifold Trilogy, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series (the latter having a spaceship which revolved to induce artificial and spatially gravity with distance from the hub…a theme repeated here in The Time Ships.)
* OK, I’ve just checked – the Manifold Trilogy was published after The Time Ships, so I suppose I should moan about his repetition of ideas if I was ever to re-read and review that Manifold Trilogy.)
I’ll let him off again here though, except to say that it seems that he’s to take many ideas from The Time Ships and developed them further in subsequent novels – much the same, as some believe, H.G. Wells did with taking ideas from The Chronic Argonauts, and developing them further in The Time Machine.
Which brings me nicely onto the next point:
* The Morlock’s name is Nebogipfel. i.e. the same name as the mysterious scientist in The Chronic Argonauts who later goes on to be a time taveller. Is this a coincidence, or opening the possibility of a temporal loop? I don’t think it too far to expect that many readers of The Time Ships will have also read both The Time Machine and The Chronic Argonauts!.
* There are pictures in this book!! What!! Much as I disliked Time and Again (Jack Finney), the inclusion of pictures there sort of made sense. But here? I’m no artist, but I don’t find the illustrations particularly good, neither do I think they add anything. I’d rather let narrative description and my imagination paint my pictures…
Back to the (near) present
* The Time Traveller ‘escapes’ from the future (Nebogipfel follows him into the time machine) and ends up a few years before his original time frame. He meets himself (as a slightly younger version) and this is an interesting read.
* The younger version of himself is “Moses” – his little used first name…as well as the first name of the time traveller in The Chronic Argonauts Dr Moses Nebogipfel. Another possibility of a temporal loop?
* Things are very different in 1944, thanks to war with the Germans. It’s an old and boring story line of alternate history which I find very exceedingly unoriginal.
* Introduction of the term time technology – research into time travel, time machine construction etc..
* Quantum mechanics is used to explain the idea of parallel universes and alternate histories. Even though I don’t like parallel universes and find them an easy escape from some of the complexities of time travel paradoxes, I must admit that the uncertainty and probability underlying quantum theory make it very novel and almost makes the chance of parallel universes possible!
* OK, the trouble with the Germans started on p198, and it’s taken till p314 to finally get past it. Dull dull dull. The section is full of names which I didn’t recognise (my own failing) but it turns out that these are key people in history, such as pioneers of bouncing bombs and soforth.
Into the deep past
* p323. Oh b***dy hell. The Watcher is back.
* The Time Traveller and Nebogipfel find themselves so far back in history (the Paleocene) that the climate is now tropical. The Time Traveller notes that in his own time he never ventured to tropical regions. I found this to be an interesting side nod to the connectivity between time and space!
* The possibility of causing an event in the past which will cause ripples into the future is astronomical. The Time Traveller kills an ancestor of a monkey, and Nebogipfel points out that this could significantly change the future. He then shows remorse at his action…notably more so that killing child Morlocks.
* During his stay in the deep past, the Time Traveller seems to become increasingly a pillock towards Nebogipfel, about whom I must say that I’ve developed quite a liking.
* Baxter shows a nice insight: the forest that the Time Traveller and Nebogipfel find themselves in is “self engineered” to withstand heavy flooding, by channelling water through grooves in the bark of tree trunks. This was well-written in the narrative, and not heavily levered in as in so many other cases.
* Soldiers from 1944 come back to deep history and find The Time Traveller and Nebogipfel. Again, names of characters are mentioned who are key in history. This is getting tiresome and, dare I say, unrealistic…that one character should meet so many other well-known characters.
* On the subject of names, the name of the main character in the original is not divulged, and Baxter tries hard to maintain this in his novel…but it’s done so very heavy handedly:
“Good morning, Mr ___ ” he said, calling my name.
So irritating! In the original, the name simply didn’t come up, whereas now it’s deliberately withheld. Very contrived, and weak. In one case, a character insinuates that the Time Traveller’s surname is Livingstone. That section of prose sticks out like a sore thumb!
* Other named characters are given a huge fanfare of phoney intriguing introduction, culminating in the name being given at the end of the chapter. It’s nothing more than a nod to alternate histories (of which I am no fan). Certain that the inclusion of so many names must be of some significance, I had to approach google (it’s my own failing that I have a poor knowledge of history), and indeed, most of the names were historically significant. It makes it unrealistic that so many well-known (not to me! :; ) should come together at one place, one time and be connected to the Time Traveller. It got really tiresome, and predictable.
* There’s a forest fire, and just as I’m thinking this is similar to the original, the Time Traveller ties grass to his feet and is reminded himself of his ‘earlier’ excursion. It’s a nice natural link between the books!
* It’s sad that the boring war story line extends into this portion of the novel, but I suppose that’s a bit of the point. I especially like the football match (similar to the Christmas Day match during WW1). Needless to say a well known footballer from the past was involved.
Back to the present (1891)
* The Time Traveller and Nebogipfel set the time machine to take them to the year 1891. This present is different from the present that The Time Traveller knows as it is populated by descendants of man from the Paleocene several millions of years ago. Baxter gives an account of the new ‘human’ species which has evolved, often referring to ants and ant-like motion. This reminded me of a sci fi novel I’d read but can’t for the life of me remember who wrote it (possibly John Wyndham) where ants occupy large metal structures because otherwise they are limited by their small size.
* As expected from Baxter there is plenty of astro-engineering, but by now I think I’ve got used to it and it’s par for the course.
* There is a fantastic copying of Arthur C. Clarke’s space elevator (from one of the Space Odyssey books, forget which one). Heaven knows why Baxter is called ACC’s heir – he just rewrites his ideas (with a touch more story line). Baxter’s only original contribution to the elevator is that if it’s made of glass, then it won’t be good for vertigo sufferers. Then again. Glass elevator sounds a little bit like Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, doesn’t it…
* The new species are named The Constructors. Nebogipfel understands them better than the Time Traveller who of course is embarrassingly narrow minded and thick. Nebogipfel adapts well and is able to learn of the plans in time travel the Constructors have in mind, with help from a billiards table which serves as a demonstration of the role of time travel and multiple universes. I thought this was a very clever insight.
A hop into the future
* The construction of the time machine will take half a million years, so the Time Traveller and Nebogipfel time travel forwards in time by that amount when the Constructors’ own time machine is ready. During this travel, the physical space which they occupy is maintained by the Constructors, again, a brilliant insight from Baxter, from whom by now, I’m starting to forgive…whilst his ideas are repetitive (e.g. the vastness of time and space, watchers, astronomical engineering, ideas from other sci fi authors), I must admit that he’s b***dy good!
The beginning of time
* The Constructor’s plan is to go back to the beginning of time, and they take the Time Traveller and Nebognipfel with them. The descriptions from Baxter of the astronomical occurrences are really impressive, as is the final outcome – that the Constructors reach the singularity in time and space, and are able to disperse themselves in all universes of the multiplicity.
* The Time Traveller and Nebognipfel are taken into an optimal universe (for the Constructors). The Time Traveller is again visited by his Watcher which is when he realises that the Watchers have been monitoring him all along, and have been engineering the artificial universe in which they find themselves. Having waited for so long in the book for some information about the Watchers, I felt the description came over as very rushed and without much back up. It is also soaked in pre-material for the Manifold Trilogy.
* The Time Traveller at this point is experiencing total eternal infinity and is at a deep peace with himself…although there doesn’t seem to be any sense of peace conveyed – just bland, vague, and despite the overbearing brightness…dull. That said, it is interesting that after a while the Time Traveller recaptures his inquisitivity, showing that despite a change in his physical form he is still human.
* The Time Traveller and Nebognipfel are returned to human form and placed in an alternate history. I thought Nebognipfel would get reconstructed a little more human like (i.e. of the Time Traveller’s form) and go back to Wales to close the circle from The Chronic Argonauts. (Why did Baxter give him such a name?) Instead he’s simply left by the Time Traveller who with no surprise at all turns out to be the mysterious visitor who bears the initial vial of platternite at the beginning of the novel.
* The Time Traveller admits earlier that he is not one for long goodbyes, and Nebognipfel is a no nonsense kind of a guy, but I really expected something more. The paragraph really seems like an unfinished note that needs a little more expansion.
It’s a real shame that Nebognipfel leaves the novel. He gives some really interesting insights, or I should say, Baxter describes his insights through Nebognipfel) such as how the point of singularity at the beginning of the universe works, or the possibility of multiple multiplicities. Staggering stuff, actually!
The quest to save Weena
* The Time Ships now remembers its origins as a sequel, and the Time Traveller goes forward in time to rescue Weena from the Morlocks. It is another sad note that he does this alone; it would have been interesting to read how Nebognipfel would have reacted to seeing alternate versions of Morlocks; the seed, perhaps, of the Time Traveller’s deep seated aversion to him. (B***dy idiot).
* The Watchers seem to have disappeared. A hugely disappointing close to a story line…no wonder Baxter keeps returning to it in his subsequent novels.
* Anyway. The novel is now reading more like a sequel to The Time Machine the style of writing is more true (e.g. with lengthy descriptions).
* Actually the fact that the Time Traveller wants to save Weena shows the keeping of the character in the original. I think the character depicted in the Time Ships would really have preferred to go back to the Paleocene era.
 I’ve started reading Tau Zero by Poul Anderson. He’s describing flight in a spaceship where centrifugal and Coriolis forces are making the passengers feel dizzy. Published in 1967, I wonder if Baxter has mastered time travel after all, or whether he’s doing the Baxter thing of taking other people’s ideas…
Although this novel deserves 0/5 stars as a sequel to The Time Machine, I’m giving The Time Ships a full 5 stars as a time travel novel in its own right.