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Stephen Baxter – The Time Ships

Title: The Time Ships
Author: Stephen Baxter
Year: 1995

There lies danger in taking a famous piece of fiction and use it as the origin of an entirely new story. First, if the reader is familiar with the original work, there are expectations, bias and so forth regarding what this sequel might be like, even if I a skilled author can of course use this to his or her advantage. Second, it risks disappointing people who liked the first book, but who aren’t very interested in the style or particular genre of the new book. I think that I can forgive such things in a book, provided that the story itself is good. However, The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter fails on all accounts. Not only is it entirely different from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and should be placed in an entirely different category altogether, but the story itself is also completely worthless.

Before I start bashing this dismal novel, I will mention a few good things. The story takes place after (if that word has any meaning when time-travel is concerned) the events depicted in The Time Machine, the Time Traveller has returned home, but soon sets out on even more (allegedly) spectacular adventures. He visits a number of places in space and time and at least some of them are fairly interesting, such as the alternate history of 1938, where the Great War never ended lingers on two decades after it really ended in our time. Germans and Allies do not race to develop the atomic bomb, but rather to get their hands on the means of time-travel in order to go back in time to wreak havoc on their enemies.

Apart from this, though, there is little of merit in this novel. It is less than 500 pages, but it feels like 5000.  Most of the pages are spent on exploring future or past scenarios, mostly through the Time Traveller’s future friend telling him about them and the Time Traveller asking stupid questions. All these scenarios are either not interesting, have been described before much more adeptly, or are so basic that they are pointless. There are nice ideas buried in the general dullness of the novel, but much like diamonds in bedrock, they are far and few between and generally not worth the effort.

A considerable amount of time is also so spent on high school science, including geology, astronomy and so forth. Truly, I don’t enjoy basic explanations of the Earth’s geology, stellar evolution or quantum mechanics. On an adequate level, it might be interesting, but if I, who have only studied natural science in high school, can follow the discussion and think that I already know all this, it becomes only slightly more exciting than a text book. These parts are perhaps the worst of the novel. Many fairly basic science-fiction concepts are presented, such as space elevators, a Dyson sphere and so on, but they are presented as though they were wonderful innovations and not rather standard ingredients. This might be partly due to the fact that the events are described by a man from the 19th century, but this is only a bad excuse and nothing else. Xhakhal, a friend of mine, listened to the audio book at the same time, and this picture is her own reaction to the novel. She stopped halfway, but I decided to endure the rest, thinking that the author might save himself somehow. I include the picture here because it’s a nice summary. Sometimes, a picture does say more than a thousand words, or 895 to be strictly accurate.

What bothers be most about this novel is the general composition. There are a number of different books within the book, all making use of different settings and different times, which perhaps would have been okay if there was a scarlet thread running through the narrative, but, alas, no such thing can be found. Yes, the two main characters remain the same, but they are so anonymous and flat that they hardly count. They aren’t characters, they are narrators of a chain of events, a chain split into far too many different parts. Each of these might have been interesting if they were the focus of either a short story or a novel, but Baxter has skillfully managed to get it completely wrong. Some stories might have worked out beautifully if developed further, but feel shallow and coarse in their current form; yet others feel far to wordy. It feels like the author is only summarising the chain of events for the reader, rather than telling a story.

The character development, social interaction and inner life of the characters are utterly non-existent, which is a pity, because it might have saved The Time Ships. I don’t want to say that this is necessary for all novels, but I do say that a novel needs something to keep up the motivation to read on. The Time Ships lacks this and I considered giving up roughly halfway. I have no idea why this was nominated for a Hugo Award. It’s perhaps the worst science-fiction novel I’ve read so far. This is the only novel I’ve read by Stephen Baxter, but if this kind of novel is what has made him famous, there’s something seriously wrong with the world.

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  1. Xhakhal’s avatar

    In a way, it feels like a rotten, putrid old cheese…

    … but enough of my rage now. It actually felt nice to experiment and not follow a recommendation for a book :) Even if it was… this book.