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Time travel

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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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Title: To Say Nothing of the Dog
Author: Connie Willis
Narrator: Steven Crossley
Year: 1997

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis continues with the time-travelling theme developed in Doomsday Book, but apart from some of the minor characters, the two novels do not have much in common and are not dependent on each other in any way. Doomsday Book is a fairly serious story about The Black Death, whereas To Say Nothing of the Dog is a humorous mystery adventure set in Victorian Britain.

The fulcrum of the intrigue is hilarious in itself, since it consists of the search of an old relic called the Bishop’s Bird Stump, which is supposedly necessary to inaugurate a new version of Coventry Cathedral (which was demolished during the Blitz) built in 2057. Time travellers are sent back through time to search for the Bishop’s Bird Stump, but something goes wrong and the Net, which allows time travel, begins to fall apart.

In this confused and chaotic setting, the time travellers Ned and his female sidekick, Verity, like so many protagonists in mystery novels before them, try to unravel the tangled mystery surrounding the Bishop’s Bird Stump and repair whatever damage the Net has sustained. To Say Nothing of the Dog is an homage to many things, but mystery novels in general is perhaps the most obvious one. References to Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others are frequent, both implicitly and explicitly.

As with Doomsday Book, the novel is expertly written and I cannot find many flaws or things I do not like, in language usage or otherwise. However, even if I am interested in Victorian Britain, the story is simply not interesting enough earn my whole-hearted approval. At places, it moves to slowly and I feel that I am way ahead of the characters in solving the mystery.

Steven Crossley’s narration of the novel is simply brilliant. I very seldom come across narrators who master the whole spectrum of skills needed, and even if Crossley do not score full points in all possible categories, he comes very close. His English is a joy to listen to and his carefully controlled and relaxed voice works excellently.

By way of conclusion, I think To Say Nothing of the Dog is a good read, slightly better than Doomsday Book, in fact, but not enough to motivate a different grade. However, if you are in the least allured by what I have said in this review, I urge you to have a look at this novel, since I am pretty sure that you will like it even more than I do.

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Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis

The habit of beginning to read book without knowing very much about them is sometimes very rewarding. I tend to avoid as much factual information as possible about the content of the book before I read it, including everything printed on the dust jacket. I like recommendations, however, and reading all Hugo Winners is one kind of recommendation, albeit not always a good one.

Therefore, I had no idea at all what Doomsday Book was about before I began, but it turned out to be a story split in two, one in early 14th century and the other some 700 years later. Kivrin, a novice historian at Oxford University, travels back through time to study the Middle Ages, but something goes terribly wrong during the drop. Instead of being sent to 1320, she ends up dreadfully close to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. Even if she is immune to the plague, she knows that it killed half of Europe…

Parallel to this, Kivrin’s teacher, Mr. Dunworthy, battles the administration of his own university to help his student, but a hitherto unheard of virus causes an epidemic and the neighbourhood is put under quarantine, further tangling the already difficult task of discerning what went wrong and what ought to be done about it.

I like Doomsday Book because it portrays a time in history which is very difficult to grasp by means of statistics and facts. I do not know how much time Willis spent on researching the Black Death, but everything seems realistic to me and she manages to convey much more than just information. The story and her descriptions convey emotions which opens a window to a view of the Middle Ages I had not experienced before.

However, there are certain blemishes, some of them more serious than others. To begin with, the story taking place in the 14th century is at least ten times as interesting compared to the other one, which makes me wonder if the book would not have been better if it had focused more on that. Sure, I agree that the parallel stories add suspense and depth to the novel, but the imbalance between the two parts hurts the novel as a whole.

In addition to this, the language does not earn my approval. It is far from bad, but it is also far from exciting, original and entertaining. Also, I do not like the pseudo Middle English which is used. Kivrin has some sort of translator, so I would have preferred if the dialogue was written in plain English, without the ubiquitous “nay”, “naught” and occasional change in word order. This is especially annoying when the rest of the sentences are in modern English. I assume the idea is to convey a feeling of times long gone, but to my mind it is mostly irritating.

That being said, Doomsday Book is, without doubt, an enjoyable read. Willis lets us come close to the characters as well as the story and manages to engage my interest, which is something that happens fairly infrequently. Kudos to her for succeeding.

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Titel: The Time Machine
Författare: H.G. Wells
Utgivningsår: 1895
Recenserad: 2006-01-15
Status: N/A

Med modern SF är det sällan man tänker på exakt när boken är skriven. När tiden kryper bakåt till 50- och 60-tal så börjar det märkas, men det är fortfarande inte några problem. Det förändrar dock ens inställning till boken om man vet att den är skriven för 50 år sedan. The Time Machine är skriven för mer än hundra år sedan och det är svårt att bestämma sig för hur man ska relatera till science fiction från förrförra seklet.

I vilket fall känns The Time Machine relevant, även idag. Detta bör ses som en bragd i sig. Utöver det är den tämligen välskriven, även om det inte direkt strålar om den. Handlingen är spännande, men idéerna är inte vidare engagerande. Det beror nog mest på att andra skrivit om liknande saker efter honom, så det är egentligen inte författarens fel. Enligt wikipedia är detta den första bok som skrevs med temat tidsresor, vilket bör göra den otroligt viktig och den bör ha påverkat många samtida och senare författare.

I handlingens centrum står en man kallad the Time Traveller. Han är en uppfinnare och vetenskapsman som varje torsdag bjuder in människor till middag. En kväll berättar han om att han till slut lyckats med sitt projekt att skicka något in i framtiden. De andra är skeptiska och nästa torsdag när de kommer dit, har the Time Traveller provat sin maskin och berättar en sällsam berättelse.

Hans intryck av framtiden är varierade och skiftar många gånger under tiden han berättar. Här kan man tydligt urskilja författarens värderingar och en del har valt att tolka boken som en indikation på vad som kommer att hända om kapitalismen för att härja fritt. Allmänna funderingar om vad som driver människan och vad effekterna av en utopi är, presenteras också.

Jag har svårt att sätta betyg på the Time Machine. Den måste ha varit helt fantastisk då den publicerades. Nu sätter jag dock inte betyg efter vad andra tycker om boken, utan försöker bedöma vad jag fick ut av den. I så fall måste jag ändå säga att det är en bra bok, men att den misslyckas med att för mig vara originell. Det kan tyckas grymt orättvist då det egentligen är helt tvärtom. Jag bedömer boken med mig själv som utgångspunkt och i så fall blir det tre och en halv snigel.

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