The Time Ships
London: HarperVoyager, 2016
The prolific science fiction writer Stephen Baxter has become known not just for his own, numerous creations but, also, for his work in recreating classics of British work. He recently had published an updated version of The War of the Worlds and this, presumably, prompted the reissue of The Time Ships, which first appeared in 1995.
Baxter has produced a sequel to the Wells original which, it is hardly a spoiler to reveal, ends with our time travelling protagonist having to abandon his beloved but quite feckless Weena to the sinister and brutish Morlocks and their (Miltonesque) underground engines. The time traveller subsequently escaped a close shave with those creatures by escaping to the far future, where he witnessed what appears to be the onset of the end of the world or, at least, of the end of humanity before returning to his own time and relating the tale to the nameless Writer. Now, the Traveller prepares to return to the future, so to speak, with a view to rescuing Weena and finding some way of living happily ever after with her in some way. However, as the back cover blurb reveals, his first intervention in the chromosphere has rather upset things and a whole new series of timelines has been introduced The Traveller has the opportunity to travel unimaginable distances in time and to witness the different and mostly unfortunate ways in which his actions have changed humanity and the other creatures encountered along the way.
Baxter does a good job of portraying the Traveller as a stiff upper lip type of chap who would do sterling work in the administration of the Empire. The world is described through his perspective and, so, it appears as a potentially dangerous place which could, nevertheless, be wrestled into submission and put to productive use with a dose of elbow grease:
“… But I knew … that my 1891, that cosy world of Richmond Hill, was lost in the fractured Multiplicity.
Well: if I could not go home, I decided, I would go on: I would follow this road of Changing, until it could take me no further! (p.349)”
It would be a little unkind to observe that there is a gap between perception and reality such as this in nearly all of Baxter’s work – his characterisation has improved over the years and has become functional, although it is hard to imagine future PhD candidates will be probing the psychological makeup and development of his characters.
The class system is deftly deployed in the spirit of the original to display the true nature of society in its various guises and the Traveller’s inherent confidence in dealing with it in the many ages of the world he has the chance to visit.
Since the Traveller was to a significant extent responsible for the new universe of divided timelines and, perhaps more importantly, because through possession of his time machine he retains agency in seeking to affect the external universe, he is kept at the heart of events by the central figures of various eras who might, one might suspect, have reason rather to resent his continued presence. Just like Wells and his ambivalent attitude towards Britain’s place and behaviour in the world, Baxter, through the Traveller, exhibits little doubt that Britain nevertheless has the central role to play in the disposition of global events. It is interesting to compare this belief with those attitudes of the others who comes to us through the prism of the Traveller’s eyes. This is all quite nicely and subtly done.
I cannot help but think that Wells would be somewhat appalled by the world today – mendacity, spiteful divisiveness, the idiocy of Brexit, all of the contemporary phenomena that destroy the sense of solidarity on which he would (class system notwithstanding) have based society. What would he make of this book? Presumably he would have been disappointed that, a century later, it would still be necessary to write it. To write about time travel in the way that he did was to call for changes to the future that he foresaw (among the Eloi and the Morlocks, which one was the bourgeoisie? An argument could be made either way). Since then, the course has been set errantly and now it might be said that we appear to be heading to hell in a handcart. Baxter, characteristically, deploys his big picture technology to address this problem using concepts not available to Wells. The approach is satisfying and the result a worthy tribute to the great man.