The Time Ships (1995) by Stephen Baxter

TheTimeMachineBut first…

The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells

(a.k.a. The Communist Manifesto, Part II: Eat the Rich)*

With The Time Ships shimmying up my TBR, it was about time I committed to finishing the 1895 classic, The Time Machine. Years back, I decided to sample some pre-20th sci-fi classics and, along with Mary Shelley and Jules Verne, H. G. Wells joined my reading list. At least for a few pages.

Then I decided to read another Verne, instead.

As with a lot of the early genre writers, old Herbie G has this issue with trusting the reader to suspend disbelief, so his narrator spends a large chunk of the book setting up the premise for the story, rather than just starting the story with an omniscient third party. The first quarter of the novella centers on Unnamed Protagonist explaining the story to his friends (one dude happens to be a writer): explaining the time machine, demonstrating the time machine, coming back from a time trip and explaining his tale over a proper gentleman’s feast. Lots of explaining.

That’s The Time Machine part. It’s incredibly boring. I never got past that part the first time. I thought the whole book was going to be like that.

But finally, Unnamed Narrator launches into his tale of time travel to the year 802,701, where he meets the sweet, innocent Eloi and the evil, mutant Morlocks– a social structure that turns out to be a clearly delineated extrapolation of what Wells expects from the social evolution of industrial capitalism, where humanity splits into two genetic branches: one adapted to the dark underground and machine work (the Morlocks), and the other living above ground and surviving off the labor of those below (the Eloi). Both peoples have degenerated into beasts of low intelligence whose capitalist roles are ingrained, although, by the year 802,701, the Morlocks have adapted well enough to subvert the system, benefiting from the Elois’ low intelligence by preying upon them at night.

Had I known that The Time Machine was going to turn out like that, I would’ve kept reading my first time around. It’s not really about the stupid, boring time machine, after all.

I highly recommend the narration by George Eustice to get you through the dry parts.

Which brings us to…

The Time Ships (1995) by Stephen Baxter

TheTimeShips1Jumping forward 100 years, to 1995, we find this BSFA-winning novel that continues the story where H. G. left off. Like me, perhaps Baxter wasn’t completely satisfied with the end of the novel and its heavy-handed moralizing about the evil, horrible Morlocks (who are really just a product of their adaptation to exploitative, inhumane conditions. H.G., did you forget what you were trying to say?). Obviously, Baxter wanted to course correct, but, as we know from every time travel tale ever in the history of everhood, you just can’t course correct because of the Paradox Paradox, and infinite Multiplicity issues. Baxter realizes this, and what might have started as a 100-200 page addendum, turns into a 600-page tome about many alternate futures and pasts.

I wish it had an audio version to get me through the dry parts.

In the original book, the story ends when Unnamed Protagonist takes off for times unknown, motivations unspoken. This ambiguity bothers some readers. In Baxter’s version, consumed with a terrible guilt that is slightly conveyed in the prose, Unnamed Protagonist has the sudden urge to return to the future to prevent the death of Weena, his beloved Eloi friend. When he arrives, the sun is dark and the earth is dead, and he learns from the Morlock Nebogipfel (a cameo from another Wells tale) that he has arrived in an alternate future of a more advanced Morlock race, where engineering advances (such as a Dyson sphere) have possibly been created by Unnamed Protagonist’s time travel meddling. He and the Morlock return to 1891 to put things right (“what once went wrong…” ) and visit with his younger self only to be picked up by a WWI time travel tank from 1938. (Yes, I said 1938. Multiplicity, ‘member?) From there, they visit the Paleocene (no stop button on escape vehicle. naturally.) and start human civilization way too early, followed by another visit to 1891 where humans have abandoned earth to highly intelligent, slow-life hive mind tech creatures, then they go back to the beginnings of time in, oh, here they are, the Time Ships, and confront the mysterious “Watchers” and understand the meaning of time (maybe?) before returning to the 1800’s as we know it. Still unsettled, our protagonist goes back to AD 802,701 to save Weena and lead an Eloi agrarian revolution against the evil Morlocks.

Wait, that’s not satisfying at all. That doesn’t address the “Morlocks are evil” issue. I wanted more sympathy for those far future Morlocks. I wanted the future degenerated Morlocks to end up being highly rational legacies of a proletariat uprising who independently decide to end their slaughter of the Eloi by forcing shared working conditions on the overprivileged class. Or at least something a little less morally black-and-white.

TheTimeShips2Despite the disappointing denouement, it is fun to see Baxter’s visions of far futures and pasts, and to watch THE time machine evolve from a rusty cart to car to tank to spaceship over the course of backward and forward millennia. At the same time, those fun moments lose their luster thanks to 600 pages of plot bloat. Stuff happens, more stuff happens, and still more stuff happens. Most importantly, Baxter misses the ship with what Wells is trying to convey in The Time Machine, which has little to do with the mechanics and inventiveness of the actual vehicle, and more to do with social evolution in an unchecked industrial society. Wells’ prophecy of the fallout from the industrial revolution is very clear, (even though he also fell into the “Morlocks are evil” trap at the end). Wells’ technological extrapolations are less clear, and, despite the title of the original story, the time machine is not the focus. Baxter misses this crucial point and gives us nearly 600 pages of (sometimes fun) tech porn and far-out imaginings.

I can’t help but compare this novel to David Gerrold’s delightful little 200-page The Man Who Folded Himself (1974), where paradox, psychology, and human complexity are conveyed so well in so few pages. Or, Michael Bishop’s No Enemy but Time (1985), which Jesse at Speculiction just reviewed and reminded me of how one time travel novel can say so much about humanity and being out of place. While Baxter certainly puts a lot of thought and surface detail into his novel, he doesn’t examine the human condition nearly as deeply as these two examples, despite the plenitude of opportunities to do so. It seems like a sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine should be accountable for so much more. (Jesse also did a nice review of Gerrold’s novel not long ago.)

There is a long history of The Time Machine sequels and alternate endings, although this may be the only one Officially Authorized by the Estate. I’m especially curious if Wells’ own alternate ending would be more satisfactory, but I can’t find much about it.

Later this week: September reading review and October to be read. Plus, a shadow list!

Next week: How to teach that loser ex a lesson he’ll never forget.

*Not exactly, but just go with me on this.

24 thoughts on “The Time Ships (1995) by Stephen Baxter

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    I never did like The Time Machine. What captured me about this book was the far out imagination at work at times. Have you ever read The War of the Worlds?

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The Time Ships is imaginative, for sure, but where it has breadth, it lacks depth, and I usually need depth to stay engaged with a book.

      As for War of the Worlds, I have only heard the Orson Welles radio version, which I know is not that same, but I will be reading the real version in the near future.


  2. What is a shadow list? It sounds nice and ominous.

    I read The Time Machine so long ago I didn’t remember a damn thing about it, except the Eloi Morlock thing, which is always what people mention as if all that boring stuff didn’t even live in the book. I agree with your assessment.

    My favorite time travel book so far ever is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. But I need to reread it and see how it holds up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Ooooh, a shadow list… Mwahahaha! (You’ll see…)

      There is so much time travel fiction out there, I have barely scratched the surface, yet I feel like I’ve read A LOT. I really need to read Heinlein’s (I know, I know, WHY?!) “All You Zombies” because it’s supposed to be one of the crown glories of the time travel subgenre.


  3. Jesse says:

    I know you also listen to Coode Street. Did you hear the episode wherein Jonathan and Gary pushed each other to answer: what is the greatest science fiction novel of all time? If you missed it (or forget), Strahan answered Neuromancer, and Wolfe answered The Time Machine. If I remember correctly, Wolfe’s reasons were that Wells’ novel was groundbreaking, that it commented directly on social issues of its time (i.e. the exploitation of labor by industry), that it effectively synthesized hard and soft sf, that it was a satisfying story that left something for the reader to ponder at the end, and that it remains influential til today – at least I think those were his reasons. Would need to re-listen…

    So while I’m fully with you on Gerrold and Bishop’s novels being better (*fist bump* for the back links and sorry for picking on you in the Bishop review 🙂 ), Wolfe convinced me; I can’t think of another novel as representative of sf as a whole as The Time Machine. Maybe you have an idea?

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I listen to Coode Street in spurts and seasons and I guess I missed that episode. (I most recently discovered The Writer and the Critic and I think I’m in love.) I love Wolfe’s reasoning for that question and I don’t think I can argue with it. While The Time Machine lacks the sophistication of more modern SF, it does have all of the ingredients that give sci-fi its bang. I can think of some possible suspects (Stapledon’s Star Maker, Lem’s Solaris) that might dethrone The Time Machine, but I haven’t read them yet, so we shall see…

      What about you? Do you have a better suggestion for The Greatest Science Fiction Novel Ever?

      And you know I don’t mind being picked on. 🙂 In fact, my comments on No Enemy but Time were primarily to solicit other interpretations for that strange about-face at the end. Finally, someone has an opinion! I follow your response, though I’m not entirely convinced because the style change is so jarring to me, it feels artificial, depersonalized, and less about optimism and more about criticizing modern life. But I haven’t been able to wrap my thoughts around it yet. I will comment on your post once I have time to sit and have a think about it this weekend.


      • Jesse says:

        I was going to ask you what you thought the greatest sf novel of all time is, but I thought it would be a scary question, so didn’t. 😉 For me – and this is purely a personal choice – it is a novel you mention, Stapledon’s Starmaker. Examining the meaning of life from existential, religious/spiritual, and philosophical grounds unlike any novel had or ever could without being imitative, for me it doesn’t get any better. I recently finished reading Aldiss’ history of sf (The Trillion Year Spree), and though he doesn’t come right out and say it, the fact he devotes a whole chapter to Shelley’s Frankenstein would seem to indicate he thinks it is the ‘greatest’. And he builds a very solid argument. On a later episode of Coode Street, Strahan challenged Wolfe to name the greatest of the 20th century, and he said A Canticle for Leibowitz, again building a good argument. While I trip over some of the religious aspects of Canticle, there’s no denying much of its discussion on knowledge, moral responsibility, etc. Solaris definitely would make my top three. It’s got sense of wonder and real philosophy – not a typical combination in genre. I haven’t read Brittle Innings, but I’ve seen some discussion on it being ‘great.’ (Maybe you could chime in? 🙂 ) I might also think that Keith Robert’s Pavane, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, Priest’s The Affirmation, Stableford’s Man in a Cage, and others could be considered. Another “book” I haven’t read which I anticipate to be great is M. John Harrison’s Ketafahuchi (or however the hell you write it) trilogy. It sits on the shelf, waiting for my motivation to jump in. All this being said, when we ran the exercise of nominating books for the SF Masterworks, a lot of titles popped up that I wasn’t familiar with. So I think I’ll reserve my final judgment until I’ve exhausted what I can explore in sf – if possible. 🙂

        Though there are occasional moments they are so p.c. as to stunt conversation, I also like Writer and the Critic. They often highlight novels on the border of realism and speculative, which is a place not much online content is devoted to. The only other podcast I can think of which aims toward the “literary” side of genre is Midnight in Karachi. It’s lighter and more author than book focused than TW&C, but if you haven’t listened, have a try. You might like it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I’m so glad you have good things to say about Midnight in Karachi! That’s next in my podcast rotation! I’ve tried a few podcasts, and most of them don’t seem to really say anything. Coode Street and Writer and Critic are the only two SF podcasts that didn’t feel like white noise. I’ve seen good things about Midnight in Karachi, but only from sources who tend to say good things about EVERYTHING– not very reliable.

          I’ve got Trillion Year Spree sitting right next to me at the moment. I’ve only used it as a reference book so far, but I haven’t actually sat down to read the whole thing. (When, oh when?) I loved Brittle Innings, but considering its entire foundation is built off of Shelley’s Frankenstein, it can’t stand on its own, which is something I think “the greatest” should be able to do. You mention The Dispossessed and I could certainly throw my support behind that one (and I’m so glad you mentioned The Dispossessed and not LHOD, because, although both are great, I do think The Dispossessed is better.)

          But I’m with you. I must read all of the SF first.


          • Jesse says:

            I don’t think Midnight in Karachi is as meaty as Wolfe/Stahan and Mond/McDermott (it is, after all), but at least the host is selecting some of the more intellectual writers in genre to interview. I generally only listen if I like the guest’s work already or am curious about it. The episode with Monica Byrne, for example, made me a believer the book is worthwhile before I saw your (corroborating) thoughts.

            Dispossessed vs. LHoD? I give the upper hand to the former only because it’s message is more universal, i.e. open communication leads toward gender balance… Otherwise, I love LHoD. The glacier trek is one of those scenes from a novel I will never forget. Why do you give The Dispossessed the upper hand?

            Liked by 1 person

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Aw, too bad it’s not as meaty, but I’m glad it swayed you to Monica Byrne. I’d love to see what you think of it.

            I loved both, but The Dispossessed felt like a stronger novel and I’m not sure why. I tend to see more criticism about it, (mainly about its unevenness, which I think is purposeful and important), while LHoD tends to get more attention. I agree that the ice trek is one of the most unforgettable scenes, but I remember more about The Dispossessed overall. Perhaps it felt more forceful and I tend to connect more to polemics, whereas LHoD involved more interrelational maneuvering, which is more common in genre books– the diplomatic space opera stuff.


  4. wildbilbo says:

    Great review:) – I’ve seen the HGW movie, but left the book so far. I don’t know I’d want to go further than that IMHO. I’ve enjoyed War of the Worlds & (to some extent) First Man in the Moon – again, I don’t think they would benefit from a sequel (authorised or not).


    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      That’s a good point. I think Wells does well (ha) enough on his own. (Although I suppose the fact that his story has inspired so many sequels speaks to his significance.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The Time Ships (1995) by Stephen Baxter Seeing as this BSFA-winning novel is an *authorized* sequel to The Time Machine, I also included a mini-review of H. G. Wells’ 1895 classic. The Time Ships is inventive and true to form, though I was disappointed that Baxter spent most of the time Nivving-out on machinery and didn’t shine the spotlight on Wells’ more central socioeconomic extrapolations. […]


  6. pbbpb says:

    Wells is my jam.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. marzaat says:

    If I were given to making such lists, yes, The Time Machine would be an essential sf novel.

    There’s a lot going on in Baxter’s book besides a Time Machine sequel.

    The domed city is a reference to Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come. The reference to “red weed” is from Wells’ The War of the Worlds (another essential text, in my mind). The giant tanks hearken back to Well’s prophetic “The Land Ironclads”. The description of aerial wars hearken back to Wells’ The War in the Air. Wells and George Orwell put in cameos.

    The whole thing is almost a love letter to H. G. but …

    In this world, Wells, aka the Writer, speaks of the “Uplands of the Future”, of the cleansing of man’s soul, and is a propagandist for the war. The Uplands of the future is a totalitarian theory of democracy’s failure, a future of “re-nucleation” where the industrial age has rendered the family obsolete (somewhat in line with the Time Traveler’s speculation in The Time Machine that women, due to industrialization, became physically more like men and are divorced from child rearing), opposition outlawed, everything planned by government, no private property, planning of all resources including humans, euthanasia, racial hygiene. The Time Traveler – unlike Wells — is horrified by the “New World Order”. In Wells’ view, people should not have to be asked what they want. They should be told what they ought to want and what they want. Wells, here, comes off as an example of the scientist/writer with a totalitarian streak.

    Liked by 2 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, I read a lot of those references in the Wikipedia entry about The Time Ships, but they don’t really mean anything to me because I haven’t read Wells’ other works. I totally get that it is a love letter to H.G.

      As for the Orwell and Wells being cast as propagandists for the war and NWO, I never actually took it as the book saying that these authors have a totalitarian streak, but rather an indication of the power of the propaganda machine in that particular timeline, where artists are producers who are required to feed the propaganda machine. I was never convinced that Wells actually believed in the propaganda he was putting out… it reminded me of Soviet-era writers and the doctrine of socialist realism (not that the US didn’t also employ ways of browbeating artists into feeding the US propaganda machine. Some Twilight Zone episodes hardly offer much else!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • marzaat says:

        I read The Time Ships at the end of a Wells’ reading jag (I’ve read most of his sf).

        My comment, though, is actually a quote from notes my younger self made about 19 years ago when I read the book. Young self was generally reliable in his notes — but sometimes a bit cryptic, so I’m not sure what exactly he met.


  8. marzaat says:

    Oh, and Wells took his inspiration for the novel from British Prime Minister Disraeli’s idea of “two nations”.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. marzaat says:

    I haven’t read the Gerrold book, which comes recommended by many, but Robert Silverberg’s Up the Line seems to do just about everything possible with time travel and in a comic story. (Silverberg admits to being a particular fan of time travel.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jesse says:

      Now that you mention it, Silverberg does have quite a few time travel novels. The Stochastic Man, Hawksbill Station, Up the Line pop immediately into mind, but given his prolific number of books he published, there must be room for more…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter – Picking up where H.G. Wells left off in his classic story The Time Machine, Baxter expands on the same time travel universe, imagining new technologies, peoples, and paradoxes along the way. However, where Baxter tends to focus on Wells’ science and technology, he neglects what I consider the most important part of Wells’ works: the sociopolitical commentary. […]


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