Saturday 22 September 2018

Book: Stephen Baxter's 'The Time Ships'


Book Review of: 
(HarperCollins 1995, Voyager Paperback 1995 
ISBN 0-00-648012-8) 


‘I am by nature a speculative man…’ Tomorrow will be different from today, in subtle minor details. We know and understand this. Next year will be different from this year in some unexpected and surprising ways, although most of it will remain pretty-much the same. Next century though, begins to set up questions. In all likelihood we will no longer be around, but family elements of our DNA probably will. It’s only human to wonder, to speculate what the world will be like a hundred years hence. And if a hundred, why not a thousand years? A million?

HG Wells’ seminal narrative ends with the Time Traveller (‘for so it will be convenient to speak of him’) vanishing into futurity in hopes of returning to 80,701 to rejoin the ‘little doll of a creature’ who is the lovely Weena, by the White Sphinx on future Richmond Hill. Stephen Baxter’s sequel, authorised by the Wells Estate, picks up the tale at exactly that point, and immediately plunges its nameless protagonist into new horrors. The Earth’s axial tilt is corrected – eliminating seasons, then the day-night rotation reduces to a halt until Earth is gravitationally-locked with one hemisphere forever facing the sun… then the sun itself explodes. All within the first fifty pages.

Wells original “The Time Machine” is little more than a novelette. Baxter expands it to 630 mind-stretching pages. The same Chronic Argonaut who first jaunts through the fourth dimension, now finds himself lost in a quantum universe of parallel ‘Long Earths’ in which tomorrows are fluid and uncertain, nothing is fixed. Each trip through time simultaneously splits off new alternate time-streams, while apparently eliminating previous possibilities. Weena’s future – it seems, is deleted, inaccessibly lost in the relativistic flux. Which means that the temporal device has become ‘more powerful than a mere time-travelling machine: it was a History Machine’ – and, echoing Robert Oppenheimer’s comment after witnessing the first nuclear explosion, the Time Traveller himself has become not only ‘a destroyer of worlds’ but a ‘murderer of the future.’

Reading Wells for the first time, as an adolescent, was a consciousness-expanding experience in every sense, it left images burned into the soft grey underbelly of my memory that refuse to diminish. That I love and have devoured speculative fiction ever since has a lot to do with the shock and awe of that first mental napalm assault. Before Wells there had been dream-voyages into other times, and magical spells used as fictional temporal-travel devices. There’s also the long hypnosis-induced sleep of Edward Bellamy’s didactic ‘Looking Backward: 2000-1887’ (1888). But Wells was the first to apply quasi-scientific principles to the question, with his mechanised contrivance opening a floodgate of imitators that has never quite staunched.

He was rapidly followed by Ray Cummings’ ‘The Man Who Mastered Time’ (1924), and John Taine’s ‘The Time Stream’ (1931), until Jack Williamson’s ‘The Legion Of Time’ (1938) expands the theme to an even greater scale. Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “A Sound Of Thunder” (1952) ties logical knots in the cause-and-effect of time-tampering until Robert Silverberg’s ‘Up The Line’ (1969) playfully pitches contradictions against each other. David Lake even attempted a direct sequel of sorts with his novel ‘The Man Who Loved Morlocks’ (1981) and short story “The Truth About Weena” (1999). ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Back To The Future’ movie franchises take time-travel conundrums into mainstream cinema. Even Dr Who must be considered a distant relation of Wells’ first Time Traveller.

There have been two movie adaptations of “The Time Machine” – the first, and best features Rod Taylor as adventurer ‘George’ – with the lovely Yvette Mimieux as Weena, in George Pal’s 1960 version. There are humorous touches, the rapidly-changing fashions on the store-window manikin as he speeds through the 1920s and 1930s, then the chilling 1966 nuclear war that unleashes tides of volcanic magma. Despite Baxter’s and Wells’ most vivid descriptions, the image of the Time Machine forever in my mind is the one from the Pal movie, with its huge revolving disc mounted behind the saddle. The second film – in 2002, draws on a connection to the Wells family through great-grandson Simon Wells’ direction, for a less satisfying retelling. He first uses the Time Machine in a romantic quest to save his fiancé from death, only to discover that even time-travel cannot cheat fate, so he flashes forward to the disintegration of the Moon – nuclear war being less of a preoccupation by now. Then, into the far future where Samantha Mumba is an Eloi called Mara – there is no Weena! and an encounter with a smart Über-Morlock.


After all of that, how can there feasibly be a full sequel? Is it even possible that that first mental napalm assault can ever be recaptured? That Stephen Baxter succeeds magnificently on just about every level marks him out as the major writer of his generation. He adds detail that Wells does not. He uses the mysterious Plattnerite which does for time what Cavorite does for gravity. In doing so, he sequesters Sussexville Proprietary School master Gottfried Plattner into the tale – initially a man whose internal organs have somehow become transposed, in “The Plattner Story” first published in ‘New Review’ (April 1896). In Plattner’s own account, scrutinised by the ‘Society For The Investigation Of Abnormal Phenomena’, he reveals how he was originally given an eight-ounce graduated medicine bottle of a glowing green powder found in a disused limekiln by a pupil named Whibble. It explodes, and although the tale opens on a none-too-serious tone, Plattner is cast into an Other-World ‘state of existence altogether out of space,’ and his nine-day sojourn in a ‘green-lit half-world outside the world’, a ghost-realm beyond death, is genuinely unsettling. As are the ‘Watchers of the Living’ he encounters there. Although unconnected by Wells with “The Time Machine”, Baxter creates that text-link by seamlessly integrating its elements.

Then he introduces a connection snatched from “The Chronic Argonauts” short story first published by the Royal College Of Science in their ‘Science Schools Journal’ (1888), in which Wells rehearses ideas of Fourth-Dimensional Travel, using a mysterious experimenter in a decrepit murder-haunted Manse outside the Welsh village of Llyddwdd. The stranger has an ultra-human quality. There’s ‘some vast gulf between the newcomer and common humanity’ as the Reverend Elijah Ulysses Cook discovers. He’s ‘a solitary premonition out of the vast unknown into the sphere of minute village observation,’ who embarks on a voyage into the past to unwittingly become embroiled in the Manse’s murder, then escapes into time – ‘the voyage of the Chronic Argonauts had begun’. Baxter adopts the unpronounceable name of this Dr Moses Nebogipfel for the wise Morlock companion the Time Traveller meets in the alternate-evolution Morlock solar sphere – a Dyson ‘shell around the sun.’

Travelling back from this Morlock sphere with Nebogipfel to dark sunless Earth there’s a detailed discussion about the most visionary section of Wells’ book, his sojourn to the desolate beach and its devolved life-forms beneath the bloated sun during the eclipse at the chill end of time. Here, Baxter draws on “The Grey Man”, visiting the further post-human regression who the Time Traveller cheerfully clubs unconscious the better to examine. This incident initially appeared as Chapter Eleven in the ‘New Review’ (May 1895) serialisation of “The Time Machine”, but was excised from the subsequently published novelette, while Baxter also perhaps anticipates his own end-of-time novel ‘Evolution’ (2002).

Back in 1873 the Time Traveller meets his own younger self – who he calls by his resented first name Moses. Meeting yourself is one of the temporal paradoxes that have troubled multiple fantasists across the years intervening betwixt Wells and Baxter. Untroubled by such riddles, he attempts to dissuade this younger self from inventing the Time Machine in the first place. Obviously, should this warning have succeeded, the entire narrative up to this point would cease to exist! Yet instead he’s pitched into a further ‘blizzard of conflicting histories,’ as if the Time Machine ‘once invented, its ramifications were spreading into past and future,’ so that even his own past ‘was no longer a place of reliability and stability.’ Otherwise, would he not already posses memories of these events? Indeed, with infinite probability, it’s even likely that in some alternate time-lines ‘Moses’ heeds persuasion, and does not build the Time Machine, while in others he does, skating around on the river of time ‘like a water-boatman,’ as the wise Morlock introduces both selves to the ‘Many Worlds Interpretation Of Quantum Mechanics’.

The duo of Morlock and Time Traveller are expanded by earlier-self Moses into a trio of temporal-tourists when they encounter Filby – Wells ‘argumentative person with red hair’ who was the only named guest in the smoking room of the original Richmond dinner-party (along with the Medical Man, the Very Young Man, the Editor of a well-known Daily Newspaper, the Silent Shy Man with a Beard, and others). Filby is now aboard a Kitchener-class Juggernaut from the 1914-1938 Siege Of Europe. A part-reference to the European War that Wells predicts in his Alexander Korda-produced movie ‘Things To Come’ (1936), as well as anticipating the steam-punk militaristic invention of ‘The Massacre Of Mankind’ (2017), Baxter’s authorised sequel to the 1897 novel ‘War Of The Worlds’. In this alternate history, Central London is domed in defensive concrete as protection from aerial torpedoes and gassing. Although how the Juggernaut avoids relativistic Time Traps to navigates its accurate way home is not explained.

With a foresight denied Wells, Baxter playfully introduces Dr Barnes Wallis’ experiments with Chronic Displacement Vehicles in preparation for Time Warfare, although ironically it turns out to be Germany that uses Wallis’ rota-mine bouncing-bomb to breach the London dome carapace, and the Germans who have their own Messerschmitt Zeitmaschine to bring the nuclear Carolinium Bomb’s ‘godlike touch of destruction’ to prehistory.

Another real-life character from twentieth-century history, Austrian-born logician, mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel speculates about finding a metaphysical ‘Ultimate Meaning’ through the catalyst of alternate time-streams and a ‘Final World’ in which all meaning is resolved. Lord Beaverbrook is there too, in league with the Babble Machine kinematographic propaganda, and George Orwell – ‘a bit of a writer’, plus an Elliot poem – and even a cartoon Desperate Dan. Then there’s HG Wells himself, formerly the ‘writer’ at the Richmond party, but now an old man, ‘his fiction isn’t what it was, in my view – too much lecturing and not enough action.’ Within the planned post-war New World Order, both collectivist and puritanical, there are elements of the toxic eugenic control – ‘directing humanity’s racial heredity,’ a proto-fascist political ideology that Wells himself was briefly seduced by.

By Book Four, and the novel’s approximate mid-point, the Time Traveller is cast back into the Palaeocene living a Robinson Crusoe existence with his faithful and long-suffering Morlock Friday. This is both hugely visionary, and also a very English fantasy, where Baxter equally overlays the London street-plan onto the frozen wastes of lifeless White Earth, as he does onto the Palaeocene beach, and where the Chronic Expeditionary Force that arrives to expedite a rescue is overseen by Wing Commander Guy Gibson and two sepoys, from which the perturbations of time-travel initiate a human colony fifty-million years before the human race should even exist! The New Humans of this evolving separate time-stream devise Space Elevators, an Orbital City and a Moon green with Selenite life, only to destroy the Earth’s climatic stability in the process. In this vast sweep of perspective ‘the story of humanity seemed trivial, a flash-lamp moment lost in the dark, mindless halls of eternity,’ taking the plot into the mechanical Heirs to Man, the galaxy-spanning AI nano-tech Universal Constructors.

As Wells’ story climaxes with an excursion to the end of time, it’s entirely logical that Stephen Baxter should take his protagonists back to the very origins of time. Before neatly closing the causal loop back to 80,701 to finally rejoin the lovely Weena. By raising the expectations and anticipations of Wells’ time to those of the late-1990s almost seamlessly, Baxter is working his way into the very mainstream fabric of British SF, that unique strand which runs – obviously, from HG Wells, through Brian Aldiss and John Wyndham. ‘All over the sky, the stars were coming out’ seems a conscious echo of Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 short story “The Nine Billion Names Of God” which famously concludes ‘overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.’

Like Wells, Baxter sees ‘beyond the surface of it all.’ ‘There is no rest. No limit. No end to the Beyond – no Boundaries which Life, and Mind, cannot challenge, and breach.’ There’s a soaring optimism about Baxter’s Optimal History that has something of Olaf Stapledon’s endless vision too.

Immensely readable, endlessly inventive, and a hugely enjoyable adventure, could Wells have written a sequel such as this? Obviously not. Baxter draws on quantum and Big Bang physics unsuspected in Wells’ day. The space-time continuum has complexified beyond the simplicity of Wells early model. But if Wells were writing today – yes, he’d have revelled in this new Information Sea.

Yet I still don’t know how to pronounce Nebogipfel.

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