Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships

J-Sun

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I generally like Baxter and hate to start a thread on a negative note but most people seem to love The Time Ships, so I figure it'll quickly turn positive and Baxter's never going to get his forum if people like me tack stuff like this on to the Stephen Baxter anyone? thread like I was originally going to. Of course, this thread may not go anywhere, but it's worth a shot.

I just finished The Time Ships. As a writing exercise, it's very good in capturing a sort of 19th C Wellsian tone but I can't say that makes for the best style otherwise. As a thing for the critics to love, it's full of in-jokes and references such as to "the land ironclads" in "the shape of things to come" and even - switching authors - to "caves of steel". In terms of characterization, it's quite good in delineating a couple of complex, believable characters. Unfortunately, I didn't like the narrator a whole lot and liked the other main character even less. In terms of mind-blowing visualizations and ideas it definitely had a few but, alas, they were scattered through 540 pages of an almost plotless book. Large swathes of this book are or are akin to the the steam-grommet factory which also may be seen as a homage but still doesn't make for a lot of excitement. It starts poorly with about a hundred pages of a single human character and ends poorly with about a hundred pages of a very long drawn-out ending whose last half of ending-ending is anti-climactic. A big chunk of the middle was poor for me in that it goes back into a prehistoric past and, while I'd complain either way, this part of the past didn't even have any dinosaurs. It also displays about the only recurring flaw I've really noticed in Baxter (who I generally like a lot) in that there are hints of things on the periphery of the story that would be much much more interesting than what we're actually witnessing - for instance, the colonization of the moon, solar system, and even the galaxy, while we're sitting around in a room on a ball of ice alone but for one character with his eye stuck in a device - or the device stuck in his ex-eye.

This is also a book that eats quiche in that it hates any hint of militarism and imperialism and loves it some Morlocks. This might be a slightly unfair exaggeration but it's still there and it's kinda weird in context.

Speaking of, while the magic Morlock is, as I said, a well-drawn character, he's also a completely implausibly convenient device for Baxter to repeatedly abuse with his handy near-omniscience.

Despite trying heroically to avoid the nonsensical contradictions intrinsic to the sub-genre, Baxter still seemed to trip a lot, whether caused by time-travel or not. I jotted down almost an entire sheet of contradictions and oddities that aren't important to detail but, like Chinese water torture, made it a lot harder to enjoy the book. They range from talking about the oppressive air of a domed London due to the dome on one page to talking about its freshness due to a lack of cars and such on the next, on to the skull of one of the characters somehow being found in the same timeline in which that character currently resides when his going back to the past should have fractured the timeline right there so that his skull would have ended up in the other branch. Or perhaps not - maybe some of these can be handwaved as I was bothered by at least one seeming contradiction that I was later able to iron out for myself but then that's part of why I don't generally like time travel stories anyway - even if there weren't any problems it would feel like there were and I still have to puzzle over them instead of puzzling over something fun like a spatial/physical problem. Speaking of - a place where space and time (literally) collide: he never explains how a tree can split a time machine, yet the machine never seems to have a problem showing up buried ten feet in the ground or crashing down from ten feet in the air as the height of the ground shifts between jumps - leaving aside how it tracks the earth through its revolutions around the sun's revolutions around the galaxy's revolutions, etc.

Which gets to a critical point where Baxter seems to kind of miss Wells' point. That sort of thing doesn't seem so problematic in Wells because it's all handwavium to support a social treatise. Baxter rigorously details much of the "scientific" aspects of the story which makes problems like that... well, problems.

There are other aspects. For instance, there's the almost complete lack of physical contact or human interactions that would seem to support the serious intent of the Platonic paroxysm in 6.6 "The Triumph of Mind", though the legs are cut out from under it at the start of the next chapter. But it seems that's the less serious part and that this is a genuinely Platonic work in many ways and I hate Plato. But that's just me. Anyway, I didn't like this, though there are several positive aspects.

Massive totally ruinous spoilers:
Basically, the 540 page book can be summarized as "he sets out to rescue Weena, goes two steps back for every step forward until, by the way, he masters the secrets of time and space and sees God, but, more importantly, he finally rescues Weena but then gets eaten by a Morlock despite how nice they can be in certain timelines. The end"
. Don't hardly seem worth it, do it? :)
 

Extollager

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I read this in 2007 and remember little about it other than that it didn't seem to turn out to be as good as I'd hoped it would be.
 

Dave

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I also read it too long ago to remember the details, but...

As a writing exercise, it's very good in capturing a sort of 19th C Wellsian tone but I can't say that makes for the best style otherwise. As a thing for the critics to love, it's full of in-jokes and references such as to "the land ironclads" in "the shape of things to come" and even - switching authors - to "caves of steel"...

...I would agree with that and probably the rest of your critique. I haven't read any other Stephen Baxter, and so I haven't anything else to compare with, but given all the awards and plaudits the book has been given, I did expect more.

It must be very difficult to write convincingly 'in the style of someone else' but it seems to be a trend - James Bond sequels, Gone With the Wind sequels - I have to give credit that Stephen Baxter does do what it says on the tin.
 

GOLLUM

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On the other hand I read it and thought it was better than the original Time Machine..which is saying something I know...and as I recall there's several people here and elsewhere I know who are of a similar opinion.

No accounting for taste hey?...:rolleyes:;):p

I should add I read it about the same time as Extollager did, so I can't really give specific examples as to why I admired it at the time...was probably a combination of the 'adopted' writing style which I felt could not have been done any better if the ghost of Wells himself had been barking instructions and certainly some of the ideas put forth were excellent. I don't recall it being that uneven in plotting if that's what you are implying..but you may have a point, as I said, quite a while since I last read it.
 

Rodders

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I read this some time ago so i'm a little vaugue on the actual story. I do remember thoroughy enjoying it though.

On a side note, i read KW Jeter's Morlock Night last year. It's different, but worth picking up.
 

J-Sun

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I'm surprised to see that the first two posters were underwhelmed, too, and only the last two have been more positive. It got a lot of acclaim and won a lot of awards so I was expecting to be pretty lonely. :)

Dave - if you were interested in exploring further I'm sure you can pick up suggestions all around but I'd recommend either a collection to check out his short fiction (which may be his strong suit) or Raft, which is a really good first novel and a pocket universe in his first loose Xeelee sequence, or Timelike Infinity and Ring, which are the main and most tightly connected novels of that sequence.

GOLLUM - I don't disagree with what you say - the style and idea-content is impressive and those must also be the determining factors for many people who like the book. Indeed, idea content usually is a determining factor for me but it is possible for other factors to outweigh it.
 

GOLLUM

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GOLLUM - I don't disagree with what you say - the style and idea-content is impressive and those must also be the determining factors for many people who like the book. Indeed, idea content usually is a determining factor for me but it is possible for other factors to outweigh it.
Fair call....I was obviously moved enough by those particular facets of the book to feel it was a good one...and I confess I was in a cheeky mood when commenting on taste.

As an exercise it would be interesting to re-read the book now and see whether or not I have the same level of positive reaction....:)

@Rodders: Thanks for the reminder on Morlock Night. It's a work I've meant to read ever since attending an academic lecture during WorldCon in Melbourne..more than 2 years ago now.
 

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