The Time Ships (A book review)

Written by

  • Baxter, Stephen

Original Publication Date

  • 1995

Main Characters

  • The Time Traveller (Moses); Nepogipfel

Roger’s Review

This is a sequel to Sequel to HG Wells “The Time Machine”, which was published in 1895.  There have been two movies made of the original novel, both with name of the novel.  Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux starred in the 1960 version.  That was my personal favorite as a child and teen.  Guy Pearce starred in the 2002 film adaptation of the novel and I am not as fond of that adaptation.

Neither movie was particularly true to the novel, which was certainly more common back in the 1960’s and earlier.  I did not realize just how much the 1960 film varied from the novel until I finally read the novel in the 1970’s.  The 2002 film screen play was quite different and I did not like it very much.  Apparently the critics agreed with my general assessment of the two movies.  The 1960 version currently receives a 77% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while the 2002 version only gets 29%.

Although not technically a “sequel”, the 1979 movie, “Time After Time”, starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, was based on Wells himself as the Time Traveler.  The plot revolved around Well’s friend, who it turns out to be Jack the Ripper, stealing Well’s machine and travelling to present day San Francisco where he continues his “avocation”.  Wells pursues him to San Francisco to stop him.  I enjoyed that movie quite a lot.  The movie garnered an excellent 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Interestingly, Time After Time  was directed by the grandson of HG Wells – Simon Wells.

I only found out about the existence of this true written sequel to “The Time Machine” when I began doing research for my blog, and was looking into various novels about time travel that had been written.  The author, Stephen Baxter, was authorized to write and publish this novel in 1995 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of the original Wells’ novel.

The novel is quite long – over 500 pages in its paperback version.  But it quickly got my attention and carried it through to the end of the book.  Baxter begins the story where the original novel ended as the Time Traveler heads back into the future to try and save Weena and the Eloi, whom he had been forced to leave behind in the year AD 802,701.  But the Time Traveler realizes quite quickly that somehow the future he is returning to is not the same as the one he previously visited.  The Time Traveler’s return from the future, and the simple fact of his relating his tale to his then disbelieving small group of friends, and leaving the flower for them that Weena had given to him, seems to have set a very different future in motion.

The overriding premise of the novel is that when the past is changed in any way, alternate histories are created and the time traveler, whomever that may be, is then part of whichever new history he has created.  That is an interesting way to deal with the age-old paradox of time travel, namely, that if you travel back in time and kill your younger self, how then is it possible that you could have lived to travel back in time in the first place?

In the movie, Back to the Future 2  (aka the Marty McFly trilogy) there is a scene where Doc Browne shows Marty on a blackboard how the time line has been changed by the actions of Biff.  That is reminiscent of the alternate timeline theory presented in this novel, The Time Ships.

In this review, I will not delve into any more specifics of the novel – that is for you to find out if and when you decide to read it.  However, for those of you interested, but not enough to read the book, I have also written a rather detailed plot synopsis that follows this review.

Plot Synopsis (Spoiler Alert!)

Editor’s Note:  I won’t often write a lengthy synopsis like this since I don’t want to spoil a book for anyone who may decide to read it.  So, if you plan to read The Time Ships, you won’t want to continue reading.  But in the case of this book, since time travel is not necessarily something everyone is interested in, and I found the rather long paperback to be quite interesting, I have written the following summarized account of all the events in the book.

In a preface to the book, the author, Stephen Baxter, is reading from an account that was written by the time traveler, which is the basis for this story.

The novel begins where the original left off, with the time traveler talking to his friend, Filby, and assuring him that everything was OK, while he was planning his getaway in the time machine to take him back to try and help Weena and the Eloi. He heads off into the future but this time things seem different from when he first ventured into time.  After about half a million years, the sun goes dark and he does not understand what has happened.  He stops his machine in the year 657,000, some 200,000 years prior to when he was with the Eloi.  When he stops, his machine is surrounded by small creatures, who he later learns were Morlock children.  When he begins to fight with them, he is stunned by a larger Morlock.

He awakes to find himself on the platform of what appears to be a huge sphere which has been constructed all the way around the sun, which explains why he thought the sun disappeared – the sphere was being constructed and finally finished which blocked the sun from Earth.  He meets the Morlock, Nebogipfel, who stunned him because he thought the time traveler was attacking the children.

** Research note:  Both the names Nebogipfel (the Morlock) and Moses (the actual first name of the Time Traveller, which we never learn in the original novel) are homages to a character in an earlier story by HG Wells – The Chronic Argonauts.  In that story, also about an inventor of a time machine, the inventor’s name is Dr. Moses Nebogipfel.

Nebogipfel tells him how the Morlocks now live in the sphere and have created a stable society.  The Traveler also realizes stands that his first venture into time either changed the future, or created an alternate version of the future into which he now had travelled.  The time traveler tricks Nebogipfel into taking him back to his machine but as he is escaping, Nebogipfel jumps onto the time machine to go with him.

They travel back to 1871 and meet the time traveler’s younger self – Moses.  The time traveler has determined to stop Moses from creating the time machine in the first place to prevent the future from being affected.  As the time traveler finally lets Moses know exactly who he is, a huge military looking time machine appears and the three of them are taken to 1938 London.  It appears that another version of the future has been created, one in which the Germans are about to take over England, which has set up its final defenses in a dome covered London.  The British soldiers had come back to 1871 to prevent any other time traveler from disrupting the time machine from being built so that they could use time travel as a means to defeat the Germans.  But even if they defeat the Germans, the world they have planned after the war is just another version of the totalitarian thinking that created their problems.  Meanwhile, a former German Scientist and mathematician, Kurt Godel, is working for the British now but it appears that he already had provided the Germans with enough of the special material Platternite, to develop time travel and to have then created this new timeline in which they were winning the war.

As the three once again try to get to their time machine to travel out of this time, the dome over London is breached by a huge bomb and death and destruction rains down over London.  The Time Traveler and the Morlock get a store of Platternite from Godel and use one of the 1938 prototype time travelling cars to head back into the past.  The younger Moses stays to help Filby and they assume he is lost in the German attack.  After they begin their journey backwards in time, Nebogipfel tells the Traveler that the machine does not have a means to stop it other than to just let the Platternite run out, which it finally does some 50 million years into Earth’s past.

They stop in a very much pre-historic Earth which is overgrown and populated by wild creatures.  However, the two resolve to make the best of their situation and they set up a camp for themselves.  After a few months, they are startled to be found by members of the same British group of time travelers that originally took them from 1871 to 1938.  This time, they want to eventually take them back to 1944 to once again help in the war effort with Germany.  But before they are ready to leave, a German time travelling plane appears and drops a Carolinian bomb (a type of atomic bomb) on the British camp.  The Morlock and Time Traveler survive because they are away from the British camp when the bomb drops.  Only about a dozen of the Brits survive, in addition to our two time travelling protagonists.

Once again, they start to rebuild and call their new settlement – New London. After about a year, the Morlock has reconstructed a time vehicle from the wreckage of the German plane that dropped the bomb, since it had been downed by the Brits just after it dropped the bomb, but before the bomb exploded.  The Morlock and the Traveler embark once again, this time into the future.  Their goal is to return to the 1871 to see how this new version of history has enfolded.  But in those 50 million years, the New London colony obviously changed the course of history once again.  As the time car speeds through history, they witness the development of a very advanced race, which eventually establishes a series of environments that encircle the earth, much like the moon, and also develop what appears to be interstellar travel capability.  But in their advancement, they abandon the Earth altogether and the Earth reverts back to another ice age.  The Travelers stop in a very different 1871.

In this version of 1871, which is 50 million years after the start of New London, they are met by a very advanced race of beings/machines, which the time travelers refer to as “The Constructors”.  The Constructors use their advanced knowledge to heal both of the time travelers.  Nebogipfel learns how to communicate with them and learns of their plan to construct a method to return back to investigate the very beginnings of time.  But their plans will not be complete for almost million years.  The Constructors send the time travelers into the future in one of their own time ships to a point in time when their vehicles to return to the very beginning of time are completed and ready.

The time travelers go to the future time and then join other ships, and other Constructors, to indeed venture back to the beginning of time.  I must admit that when they arrive, it gets a bit confusing and very theoretical as to what they see is described by the original time traveler, Moses.  Moses and Nebogipfel are separated but eventually find each other once again.  The Constructors allow them to decide what they want to do – to stay or to venture back forward in time.

They decide to go back together in time to about 1871 and this time they are in the original time line.  They once again meet Mose’s younger self but this time, he gives him the sample of Platternite which he needs to build his time machine, and which starts the chain of events that took place in the two books – Wells’ Time Machine, and Baxter’s The Time Ships.

Moses and Nepogipfel part ways as Moses heads once again into the future thinking that this time he may indeed be able to find Weena.  The time ship stops at a point after he arrived in the first book, but just before Weena is taken prisoner by the Morlocks.  Moses saves Weena and starts to help the Eloi begin life on their own – sustainable without relying upon the Morlocks.  He eventually develops a method on which to create a written history of what he has seen and what he is now doing.

Moses decides he must at least try to connect with the Morlocks to help convince them that with their knowledge of engineering, and the Eloi’s ability now to farm, they can live in peace with the Eloi.  Moses fears if he does not at least try this, the Morlocks and Eloi will eventually become at odds once again.

The book ends with Moses descending down into the Morlock’s world.  The author notes that the written account he found ends as Moses descends.

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