'The Time Ships' review

By Alexander Wallace



For those of you have read my other articles, I am quite the aficionado of the work of H. G. Wells, having written a reasonably large article about fan extensions to The War of the Worlds (and have appeared on a podcast discussing the book), as well as articles on The War in the Air and The World Set Free. I find him to be an author whose prescience is often unappreciated. He predicted the atomic bomb and the strategic bombing campaign, and lived to see both come to life. I can only imagine how he felt having seen such nightmares become reality.


But here I shall focus on a different work of his, The Time Machine, and from there one of its derivatives. The Time Machine codified the time travel story, and from there has had uncountable influence on science fiction as a genre. Time travel is a plot device that is very influential in alternate history, as it is an easy way to actually change history in a way that allows for an author to tell the story they want to tell. Time travel stories and alternate history stories have been joined at the hip since the latter’s inception; one of the core texts of our genre is L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, which is foundational for alternate history in the way that Neuromancer is for cyberpunk.


That brings us to The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter’s authorized sequel to The Time Machine. When I say it is ‘authorized,’ I mean that it was blessed by the H. G. Wells estate; he is a vice president of the H. G. Wells Society. I have previously praised Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind as being the best fan extension of The War of the Worlds out there (note that the title is a quote from The Shape of Things to Come). He brings his Wellsian virtuosity to time travel.


The Time Machine, groundbreaking as it is, is a short and quite contained novel. It focuses around the time traveller and his experiences with the Morlocks and Eloi. Baxter takes this material and imbues it with a James Micheneresque grandeur. James Michener’s work inspires awe through the passage of time; Baxter inspires awe through the twisting of time on scales rivaling that of any epic historical novel.


The book itself is driven by two characters: the time traveller and Nebogipfel, his alien companion. The two are something of an odd couple, but they play off each other very well, with the time traveller familiar with the human and Nebogipfel familiar with the utterly alien. Through this spindling story, they enlighten each other as to the nature of the universe and to the nature of time.


There is a wide variety of settings in this book, ranging from massive dyson spheres to earth in the years of its earliest life. However, there is one that has stuck with me the most, and it is one that justifies this book’s discussion on an alternate history site. Through a complex series of events, the time traveller and Nebogipfel find themselves in a London in a world where the First World War never ended. Alternate history has a tendency towards the dystopic; I have never seen a dystopia better visualized than in Baxter’s novel. It is a London where walking tanks patrol the streets, citizens live in domes in fear of air raids, and the Modern State controls everyone in Great Britain out of a fear of their own extinction. Particularly, there’s a certain scene involving a gigantic projector screen that has not left my mind in the half year or so since I’ve read it.


The Time Ships is a triumph. It is hands down the best expansion on The Time Machine I’ve ever seen (the other two are Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, which I discussed in the article I wrote on The War of the Worlds, and a short story by Joe Lansdale that I read in an anthology, which begins with the time traveller furiously masturbating). The pure alternate history in this book is small, but it is powerful, and for that alone it deserves a vaunted place in the genre’s list of classics. It combines history and science into something of which I am in utter awe, much as he did in The Massacre of Mankind. Many in the genre could learn from him.

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