BOOK REVIEW: The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter

  • A sequel to The Time Machine
  • Authorised by the H.G. Wells Estate
  • Published by Harper Voyager in 1995
  • A Time Travel novel
  • 499 pages
  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Time Traveller has returned to his own time, but yearns to visit the future of his beloved Weena once more. But his second journey to futurity reveals that the future is no set in stone, and any attempt to alter time may have dire consequences . . .

I love The Time Machine. It’s the grandfather of time travel stories, and still one of the best. H.G. Wells’ classic story tells of a nameless Time Traveller who takes a quick jaunt to the future to prove a scientific point, and then returns home to tell the tale. That future of benign but simple Eloi and sinister Morlocks (the twin descendants of modern humanity) is still a favourite story of mine. Yet even though I first encountered the Morlocks as a child, I hadn’t read Baxter’s authorised sequel until now.

Stephen Baxter is an author that I have a mixed history with. Almost all of what I’ve read of his has been short fiction, in the collection Obelisk and the novella The Medusa Chronicles, co-written with Alastair Reynolds. I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed either. But there’s one novel of his that I have read, and that is The Massacre of Mankind, an authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds. The War of the Worlds is my favourite pre 20th-century novel, and I rate the sequel very highly. Coming into The Time Ships, my one question was ‘can Baxter strike twice?’ The answer is a solid yes. On the basis of these two books, I really need to check out more of Baxter’s novels.

The Time Ships picks up directly after the original, with the Traveller packing his backs for a return to the future. But when he gets there, he finds that something has altered the future. There are no Eloi anymore, and the Morlocks have built a Dyson Sphere around the Sun. In just the opening few chapters, Baxter ticked a lot of my boxes. Then the Traveller (and a Morlock passenger) go on a trip across time to work out what has happened. Stops along the way include; the Traveller’s younger years, an alternate World War, the Palaeolithic era, and more. Each period gets its own lengthy exploration, and for a lot of the book there’s no more plot than an attempt to uncover how the Traveller can fix time. This does lead to a rather meandering narrative. It’s all quite interesting, but the various sections don’t feel very connected to one another. As a result, some are better than others. The final act of the book involves a lot of quantum physics and paradoxes, and I’ll admit to having trouble following what was going on. But even a somewhat lacklustre climax can’t ruin how fascinating the journey to get there is.

There’s more than just The Time Machine in this book’s DNA. Along the way, I caught references to several other Wells works. The Land Ironclads appear in all their terrifying glory, The War in the Air occurs as a historical event, and The Shape of Things to Come is namechecked in dialogue. There’s a fun cameo by Wells himself, and the enigmatic Watcher bears an incredible resemblance to the Martians from The War of the Worlds. I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed, but an encyclopaedic knowledge of Wells is not required reading here. They’re fun little asides. Strands being pulled on to showcase possible timelines. Then there are things like the Dyson Sphere that Wells would never have imagined. Real world scientists and historical figures from beyond the Traveller’s lifetime are folded into the narrative with great results. Even when the narrative is at its slowest, there’s always something of interest to pick at.

Living up to the original novel is an impossible act, but Baxter creates a worthy successor. It’s a great scientific adventure that fits perfectly with Wells’ legacy.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, then you may also like:
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
One Day All This Will Be Yours, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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