Posts Tagged ‘the butterfly effect’

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?

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky: Hard To Be A God

February 1, 2015

51igRYl2qoL._AA160_ A14HOeYaWZL._SX75_CR,0,0,75,75_This Soviet science fiction novel, just like Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, starts from what now appears a very strange premise: utopia has been established on Earth, and it is a soviet utopia. That is, the whole planet flourishes happily under communism. Unlike Andromeda, which presents and explores this utopia in some detail, in Hard to be a God, we only get fleeting references back to the home planet, for this novel is set on a violent, savage, feudal world.

A group of observers from Earth, who are also participants in and therefore members of this primitive society and its barbaric feudal wars, slaughters and power struggles, confront the problem of how such a world might be nudged towards more civilised behaviours. The observers, and indeed the authors themselves, reflect on parallels with various moments in Earth’s history. Their knowledge, technology and weaponry is far advanced compared with that of the planet, so their status, though concealed, is god-like, and presents them with serious moral dilemmas and conflicts.

We are not in Ray Bradbury’s ‘butterfly effect’ territory, where absolutely no interference is permitted for fear it irrevocably change the future pattern of events. Rather, given the observers’ superior knowledge, what should be done for the best? And, god-like though their powers may feel, they cannot predict the future or potential outcomes of their actions.

The premise struck me as quite similar to the Ekumen of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish novels and stories, where, again, observers from more advanced worlds are present on other planets: the idea occurred to Soviet and American writers at about the same time. Let’s hear it for serendipity.

Next question is, of course, what if that happens – or did happen at some point in the past – to us on planet Earth? And also, what if someone realised, or worked out in some way, that this was going on? As one of the characters in Hard to be a God actually does; another has at some point been told, but does not really understand what it means.

The novel develops rather slowly and it took a while to see where the writers were heading with their idea: I thought it was just going to be mediaeval sword and sorcery nonsense and would have given up had I not read and enjoyed other of the Strugatsky’s novels and known that there would be something worth waiting for. I was not disappointed: the ending is powerful, the framing carefully done and the overall effect very thought-provoking.

I gather that the story has been filmed: thanks to Jack Avery for the nudge to read the book, which had languished for 30 years on my bookshelf…

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