Review: “The Time Ships” by Stephen Baxter

HG Wells ended his time-travel novel The Time Machine with a figurative question mark, an open door so to speak, when the nameless protagonist heads back to that distant unsettling future he has visited. In The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter lets that chap tell the story of his second time journey. Wells did not go much into the problems with time-travel paradoxes. But Baxter does, and with gusto: the protagonist quickly discovers that his invention leads to causality getting repeatedly punched in the face during the jaunts back and forth in history.

Spoiler alert

Baxter introduces plenty of ideas from the works of Kurt Gödel, Stephen Hawking, Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Arthur C Clarke (for example: the necessary incompleteness of all theories that strive to explain reality; the causality-defying qualities of the Big Bang singularity; the properties of a steady-state universe; the galaxy-affecting capabilities of all-purpose von Neumann machines), and he therefore writes about intermeshed time-streams in ways that would have been inconceivable to Wells with his pre-Einsteinian knowledge of cosmos.

The story moves ahead swiftly in a polished and dynamic prose and Baxter creates well-crafted milieus for the protagonist’s search for the lost Eloi girl Weena: a diesel-retro war-ravaged London in a 1938, a Dyson sphere, a Robinson-style adventure in a Paleocene jungle, etc.

However, my feelings about this book are mixed. To start with its good qualities: The descriptions of the grimy alternate London and the sun-drenched prehistoric jungle are vivid and suspenseful. The protagonist is a man with flaws and qualities: his foul moods and parochial Victorian mindset are contrasted to his inventiveness, adaptability and derring-do. Baxter’s reflections on the human propensity for violence and war are tinged with an appropriate Wellsian bleakness.

On the other hand, Baxter has a bad habit of introducing subplots that just “fall off the stage” a few chapters later. One example is the cause behind the alternate World War One that has raged for 25 years: Baxter hints at a strange German conspiracy, but never closes the matter properly. Realistic? Maybe. Disappointing? Yes! Also, the end was too predictable; I did foresee most of it already when reading part 1.

My verdict is therefore three Time Machines out of five. The book is good, but it could easily have become much better with some reworking. I will most likely not re-read it in its entirety, but I will probably return occasionally to the jungle and London parts.

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