August 26th, 2019

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The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter

Second paragraph of third chapter:
I screamed and buried my face in my hands; but I could still see the light of the enhanced sun, leaking even through the flesh of my fingers, and blazing from the nickel and brass of the Time Machine.
This is a sequel to The Time Machine, authorised as such by the H.G. Wells estate. (I've had more dealings with the estates of deceased writers in the last week than I can remember from my whole life before the Worldcon.) I have previously mentioned that I always appreciate the breadth and scope of Baxter's vision - the commitment to sensawunda if you like - but that he doesn't always succeed in communicating it in a human way to me. I thought this book ticked the right boxes. The Time Traveller of Wells' novel tries to return to the year 802,701 and save Weena, but gets caught up in the parallel universes of the Many Worlds theory, and visits a number of very well depicted possible futures and pasts along with a friendly Morlock called Nebogipfel. Particularly vivid passages are set in a war-torn London of 1938, where the exiled Kurt Gödel is helping the British government, and a Paleocene setting where they become involved in setting up a wildly premature human colony in the past. Other bits are a little duller, but the overall plot of time paradoxes, which seems in danger of veering out of control at one point, is wrapped up very satisfactorily. Apparently there are lots of references to other H.G. Wells stories as well, which I missed due to not being in that fandom. Overall I enjoyed it.

I thought I had read this before, but it didn't seem familiar to me and I wondered if I had been confusing it with The Space Machine by Christopher Priest? Anyway, you can get it here.

The Time Ships came to the top of my list as I get through the BSFA, Clarke and Tiptree Awards of previous years; it won the BSFA for Best Novel in 1995, beating Blood by Michael Moorcock, Chaga by Ian McDonald, Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley, The Nano Flower by Peter F. Hamilton and The Prestige by Christopher Priest. I have to say that I definitely rate Chaga and The Prestige ahead of it; I have also read Fairyland, but can't remember much about it. (On the other hand I love Baxter's shorter piece, "The Ant-Men of Tibet", which was shortlisted for, but did not win, the BSFA Award for shorter fiction.)

The Time Ships also won the other John W. Campbell Award, ahead of Chaga (again) and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, and also won the Philip K. Dick award ahead of four novels I have not heard of (Sarah Zettel's Reclamation, George Foy's The Shift, William Barton's The Transmigration of Souls and Michael Bishop's At the City Limits of Fate).

The Time Ships got second place in the Hugo vote, losing to The Diamond Age but ahead of Brightness Reef by David Brin, The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer (one of the worst ever Nebula winners) and Remake by Connie Willis; I've read all of them but the Willis, and that ranking seems about right.

The Time Ships was also a finalist for the Clarke Award, beaten by Paul J. McAuley's Fairyland with Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction second. Other finalists were Happy Policeman by Patricia Anthony, which I haven't read, The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and The Prestige by Christopher Priest. I've read all of these except Happy Policeman, and if I'd been a juror I would have been wavering between MacLeod, Stephenson and Priest, probaly leaning towards Priest.

I read Fairyland only ten years ago, so I'm skipping the Clarke Award for that year and going next to the Tiptree winner, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (which also won both the BSFA and Clarke Awards two years later).