Friday, June 13, 2014

Racing after Wells: Stephen Baxter's Universes

Baxter, Stephen. The Time Ships. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Like almost every other book ever written, The Time Ships has a beginning. It starts slowly, ponderously, almost imperceptibly, establishing a main character contemporaneous to H. G. Wells (who, it is hinted, has already written a book about this main character and his first trip into the future). Baxter's protagonist embarks upon his second trip into space, in which he plans to rescue a poor and beloved Eloi who suffered greatly on his account during his first trip into the future.

Instead of changing the fate of Eloi Weena, Baxter's character is surprised to see a new future transpire outside the walls of his machine. When he emerges--before Weena's time--he befriends an unusual character of Morlock descent, named Nebogipfel, and learns that the account of his travels written by his good friend (the unnamed Wells) has so influenced humanity that it has abruptly changed the future of mankind. From this point, Baxter wanders into some physics-based discussions of parallel universes and complex worlds. These work because Nebogipfel is constantly instructing the main character--therefore the scientific explanations come through dialogue rather than the narrator's interruptions--and some of them are genuinely intriguing concepts. However, the book leans a little heavily on the science fiction, and, as a result, very few of the characters enjoy the benefits of any development whatsoever. Nebogipfel is an exception (except that, as a Morlock, he has about as many emotions as a Star Trek Vulcan), but even the main character is left doing a lot without showing much intention, motive, or character development.

I didn't dislike Time Ships; on the contrary, I enjoyed Baxter's world, his haphazard flights from the beginning of time to a future so drastically unexpected, and his subtle references to Wells. I particularly enjoyed the diverse array of "ships" deployed over the novel as a whole, and some of the futuristic gadgets described during the protagonist's time with the Morlocks.

As a literary experiment, then, this novel works well; as a novel, it had its share of missing elements, particularly surprising given its 520 pages. Hilary Bond was one of the most intriguing characters in the entire book, yet she is left largely flat and unexpressive (a token female soldier?) although she appears in several scenes. Similarly, Nebogipfel is a bit of a stock character; without more interaction between him and his fellow Morlocks, it becomes easy to see him as a "token Morlock" rather than an individual (he also does not benefit from his role as the narrator's foil).

Overall, I'm a bit neutral about this book. Fans of Wells or Science Fiction in general might well enjoy its concepts and frequent references to history and literature (and, probably, to real science and scientists), but there is little to dazzle the reader. I'd like to read Baxter again, but preferably in a more moderately paced work.

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