Review of Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships

The Time Ships
Stephen Baxter
London: HarperVoyager, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-00-813454-9
499 pp.

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.

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Review of The Medusa Chronicles by Baxter and Reynolds

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The Medusa Chronicles

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

London: Gollancz, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-473-21020-2

327 pp

Two of Britain’s leading science fiction writers have joined together to pay homage to and update the work of one of the greats of the genre, Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke had written a novella published in 1971 entitled ‘A Meeting with Medusa’ that was, characteristically, both revolutionary in terms of scientific understanding and rather conservative in terms of characterization and the portrayal of social and personal relations.

In the original, a single Anglo-Saxon explorer, who has been partly rebuilt as a cyborg as a result of a previous aerial misfortune, pilots a spacecraft into the atmosphere of Jupiter and there encounters a number of strange and mind-expanding alien creatures. He also interacts with his evolved monkey crew and eventually frees them from their enforced servitude on the ship. This is the background to the current book, which envisages the protagonist, Howard Falcon, being progressively upgraded as his mechanical parts reach the ends of their working lives such that his lifespan is enormously extended. As a result, he is able to observe and occasionally participate in the encounters between humanity (both foolish and sensitive) and the machine life whose origin is indicated in the back cover blurb. It becomes a fascinating alternative future history of the type for which Baxter is particularly noted, although the narrative remains somewhat hindered by the deadweight of Falcon himself, who acts as something of an anchor on a book seeking to take flight.

It is tempting, when reading fiction that has been produced by more than one author, to try to guess who has written which section. Tempting but probably ultimately futile because the writing process using contemporary technology can see multiple drafts of different sections being created without difficulty. Even if the authors themselves do not come to create a homogeneous text, then editors exist whose job it is to ensure that a smooth manuscript results. These are, after all, not insignificant figures in the publishing world and it would be expected that a collaboration between them would attract fans of one or both of them and shift, therefore, a lot of units.

This is a very interesting and sometimes even exciting story, particularly with respect to the consideration of how machine intelligences would develop over extended periods of time. One of the problems of such a lengthy timeline is that even though some other characters are allowed to linger in different forms, it becomes difficult to have much emotional engagement with other people who may pop up along the way and, further, the possibility of revealing character development through personal relations is also limited. Still, as I have written before, people who come to a science fiction novel expecting complex personal relationships are likely to be disappointed more often than not. Instead, readers are recommended to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The ending of the book makes it possible that there could be a sequel, although I imagine both Baxter and Reynolds, each of whom is quite prolific in publishing, would find it difficult to schedule more time to do so. I find myself somewhat ambivalent about this since, on the one hand, it would be fun to explore a distant future, on the other hand such a book would seem to be too far removed from the point of this first book while at the same time being hampered by having to retain the existing characters and set-up. Perhaps it will be better to let the authors return to their own imagination and bring forth more marvelous things therefrom.

Review of Baxter’s Proxima

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Proxima is the latest of Stephen Baxter’s many novels that take a long view on the future development of the earth. In this case, it tells the story of the settling of a new planet. In this case, the Earth has not yet been destroyed (Baxter seems rather to enjoy destroying or ruining our home planet), it is in a bad way and the resources of the Solar System are divided between the rival powers of the west and of the Chinese-dominated east.

Read the full review here.

Review of Stephen Baxter’s The Wheel of Ice

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Doctor Who has become something of a global phenomenon in recent years. In the past, the programme relied on cheap props and scenery, padded-out mid-series episodes in which the characters would customarily split up and chase each other around a quarry or wherever else had been chosen as a location, not to mention a few short-cuts in the plotting process (‘reverse the polarity!’).

Read the full review here.

Review of Baxter’s Iron Winter

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Stephen Baxter’s illustrious career as an author of science fiction has become increasingly characterized by the desire to explore the long-term implications of variable initial conditions on societal change. This has included several attempts to try to predict the ultimate end of the universe and the reasons by which that end might come. In this current series – Iron Winter is the third of the Northland series and there must surely be at least one more to come – the focus is planetary rather than cosmic and the variable condition is global climate change.

Read the full review here.

Review of Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long Earth

As it turns out, with the aid of a potato and a few wires and switches, it is possible for people to step out from this world to one of a series of identical or almost identical worlds, only without any people in them. There is, in fact, an apparently endless and possibly infinite series of these worlds – which people talk about as the ‘Long Earth’ – extend towards both the east and the west, so to speak.

Read the full review here.