Posts Tagged ‘Palaeolithic era’

Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships

February 17, 2021

     Ever since its first publication, H G WellsThe Time Machine has fascinated readers and writers with the notion of being able to travel to the past and the future. Various writers have played with Wells’ original idea: I once admired Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, which managed to combine elements of the original novel with the same author’s The War of the Worlds, but last time I read it, I found it rather disappointing. Roland Wright’s A Scientific Romance is another favourite, which weaves in elements of and characters from Wells’ original story. And now, I’ve finally read Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships, which Arthur C Clarke lauds on the cover as being almost better than the original.

One of the problems with time travel is that it’s the concept that’s most interesting; secondary are the epochs a writer chooses to visit, and often the plot only comes third. Baxter is hooked on the idea that the very invention or discovery of time travel begins to alter the future as soon as the first journey takes place – link to Ray Bradbury’s ‘butterfly effect’ here – and so Wells’ traveller has set in motion multiple worlds and multiple possibilities, along with the idea that it’s therefore impossible to go return to a time one has already visited, and for it to remain the same as ‘last time’ (if you see what I mean). And this is the start of the hero’s problem, as he wishes to return to the future some 800,000 years hence, the world of the Eloi and Morlocks, and save Weena…

So, attempting to return to Weena’s world, our hero is stopped half a million years into the future in a different world where Morlocks are the future of humanity and have incredibly advanced technology; one of them becomes his time-travelling companion for the remainder of the novel. They return to a different and earlier England and meet the hero’s younger self, are transported to a version of 1938 where the Great War is still going on and both sides are using time travel to try and defeat each other, which leads to our travellers spending some time in the Palaeolothic era, where another future track is seeded by a group of colonists from 1938 who remain behind, and create an astonishing future, while destroying their home planet through global warming…

We get imagined utopias in the far future, warnings about our own present, glimpses from Wells’ other novels where he imagines warfare in the future as well as world government, and an overlap with Olaf Stapledon’s famous Last and First Men, when Baxter also tries to imagine the remote future of our species, or at least what it may become.

There is also a meta-narrative here of course, in that Baxter is not only playing with Wells’ original narrative in his novel, but of course also has all the ideas that other novelists have come up with and explored in terms of time travel available to him… There is so much crammed in here; while it’s an enjoyable yarn, at times it feels a bit ‘Boys’ Own Paper’-ish, and at others it feels almost chaotically out-of-control.

I have realised how long it is since I read Wells’ original tale and feel I ought to go back to it; I do feel that Baxter has achieved a tour-de-force here, and am tempted to agree with Arthur C Clarke’s judgement. I have always been intrigued by time travel tales. Given the choice, I’d want a brief and safe trip back to the time of Bach and Shakespeare, and maybe a visit to ancient Rome; not sure about the future… Where and when would you go?

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