Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships is a sequel to HG Wells’ classic The Time Machine. Where Wells was crisp, haunting and poignant, Baxter is deep and broad, and offers his usual blend of hard-core sci-fi philosophy and science.
The Time Ships picks up where The Time Machine left off. The Time Traveler (TTT), after getting nothing more than a tepid response to the story of his first trip to the future, rushes headlong back into the future to find and rescue his Eloi friend Weena. Instead of returning to fix the wrongs of his previous time travel experiences, TTT finds himself in a different future, somehow caused by his initial trip. In this new trip, Earth is not the same as expected, and an evolutionarily different kind of Morlock has emerged from a subterranean existence to live on the dark side of a gigantic shell around the sun. On this new world, TTT meets his Morlock guide, Nebogipfel.
While Nebogipfel initially pushes the boundaries of what TTT has come to understand about Morlocks, he ultimately propels TTT in his overall understandings of science, the human condition, evolution and time travel.
Nebogipfel identifies a “multiplicity of histories,” essentially identifying that there exist multiple disconnected but somewhat parallel threads of history. TTT traveled along one thread in his first trip, and leaped to a different thread his second trip. Each of TTT’s and Nebogipfel’s subsequent trips explores a different thread of history. These trips include a journey to TTT’s younger self in London, which opens a vast exploration of causality and the inherent contradictions and supposed impossibilities introduced by time travel.
Their journeys include a jaunt into WWI-era London, in which we find the war effort spending significant resources to develop Time Travel into a serious competitive advantage of the Germans. From there we jump to a version of the Paleocene era, which ultimately becomes inhabited by a small group of A-bomb survivors who launch humanity down a new evolutionary path. Ultimately, we travel to the origins of the Universe…
Baxter’s writings are filled with analyses of time travel and its related philosophies and science. Evolutionary themes are of also great importance in his stories. I’m a big fan of these themes, and while discussions of time travel take up a lot of space in The Time Ships, Baxter only scratches the surface of his opportunity to address evolutionary impacts through the multiplicity of histories.
Through the first third of the book, I was thinking that The Time Ships was a 4-star rating. But most of the final third of the book was dragged down by the weight of time travel theory interplay between TTT and Nebogipfel until the final chapter when TTT is led back on his original track to find Weena. However, Baxter nails H.G. Wells’ tone for the TTT, and I can’t help but enjoy Baxter’s thoroughly explored what-happened-next to Wells’ characters and themes.
The book, overall, is enjoyable, and it’s clear why The Time Ships won the British Science Fiction Association Award in 1995, as well as the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and the Philip K. Dick Award in 1996. But readers should be prepared to go deep on time travel theory while exploring the what-ifs of Well’s original classic.