Wednesday, March 16, 2011

1996 Campbell and Philip K Dick, 1995 BSFA –THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter

This novel racked up lots of awards and even more nominations, and it heralded a new wave of hard sf writers consisting of mostly British authors, like Baxter. The novel was authorized by the H. G. Wells estate as a sequel to The Time Machine to celebrate that landmark work’s centennial.

It does pick up right where The Time Machine left off; in fact, I had to put the book down after the first couple of chapters, read The Time Machine, and then start over with The Time Ships. This was fine, since a) it’s pathetic that I hadn’t read The Time Machine earlier, and b) The Time Machine is a very short work, under a hundred pages. Anyway, the unnamed Time Traveler sets off on another trip almost immediately after the events of Wells novel. He moves hundreds of thousands of years into the future, but quickly finds that something is wrong, and he is now in a different future populated by super-smart Morlocks with astounding technology. Working from the multiple universes of quantum theory, Baxter posits that the Traveler’s jaunts through time take him into different histories. He takes a New Morlock companion named Nebogipfel and continues his travels through a wide array of pasts and futures, many of them references to H. G. Wells books (including an alternate World War II with giants tanks like his “Land Ironclads”).

It’s a wild ride and a very fast-paced read. Baxter managed to explain some very big ideas and complicated scientific concepts without ever losing me for a second. His prose is straightforward and unadorned, and thus unlikely to get a lot of notice, but I do think this kind of communication skill deserves more appreciation. I’ve read enough bad non-fiction science writing to know that understandable explanations aren’t as easy as they look.

Still, I’m not quite sure that this is a worthy successor to The Time Machine. Wells managed to use his adventure tale to comment on the growing class divide he saw in industrial Britain. Baxter doesn’t make the same sort of comment on contemporary society, though there is some discussion about human nature, war, etc., none of it that deep, specific or revaltory. Also, even though it’s narrated in first person (and over five times as long), we don’t learn all that much more about the protagonist, and the rest of the characters are even slighter. The focus is on Big Ideas and action, but at least it’s very fun. The Time Ships could have said a bit more and delved a bit deeper, but it is a very entertaining and worthwhile read.

Grade: B

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