The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1995, 520 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105648-0

Ah, new bookstores… For the average bibliophile, few things are as pleasant in life than discovering a new bookstore. In the Ottawa area, we’ve been lucky lately (despite the closing of the House of Speculative Fiction): Both a downtown mega-bookstore (Chapters) and a new SF bookstore (Basilisk Dreams Books) have opened in the last six months or so.

But this isn’t a review of a bookstore… To make a long and potentially boring story short, let’s just say that my first trip to resulted in the purchase of a long-awaited book: The Time Ships. Curiously enough, this particular edition isn’t supposed to be published in Canada… Indeed, the jacket copy lists only one (American) price. Bad move from Harper Prism, or restrictive rights agreements?

Still, you can’t keep an SF reader away from a good book. My reasons to be curious about The Time Ships were diverse: It was a 1996 Hugo Nominee. It wasn’t available at the library. It wasn’t available at any other bookstore. AND, it’s the first “approved” sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Now, understand that I’m no particular fan of Wells. His prose style was fine for the turn of the century, but today… it’s a bit full of cobwebs. But even then, one cannot help to admire the legacy left by a few novels and shorter stories. Wells tackled on themes as invisibility, time-travel and alien invasions a full century before INDEPENDENCE DAY… with considerably more intelligence. But that’s another essay.

The Time Ships picks up where Wells’ story ended: The Time Traveller resolves to go back to the Eloi/Morlock world. Of course, things aren’t that simple, and five hundred pages of various adventures follow. We get far-future extrapolation, an alternate history, a robinsonade and another far-future big-canvas scenario. To say more would be a spoiler.

The book is told “a la Wells”, which is to say, using a pseudo-Victorian style. I wasn’t too enthused about that, but I was surprised at how readable the whole book was. This, incidentally, also makes The Time Ships surprisingly accessible to any reader unfamiliar with science-fiction: The complicated concepts of alternate worlds, time-travel, etc… are explained to them as they are explained to our time-travelling (Victorian) hero. We sometimes get the false impression that this is a book Wells could have written himself.

But Baxter did write the book, and should be deservedly proud of it: He tackles on big subjects here and succeeds more than he fails. I felt the book was more interesting when he veered off Wells’ ideas than when he followed the first book’s story, but that’s a highly subjective opinion.

The Hugo nomination for this book was warranted. Whether it should have won is another matter entirely, which I won’t discuss here… But this is still a superior read: Grab it, read it. Baxter is now on my “to catch up on!” list.

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