Stephen Baxter (1957- ), a British engineer and science fiction writer, collaborated with Sir Arthur C. Clarke on two novels in the series A Time Odyssey, which explores the nature of time. In the first novel, Time’s Eye, powerful alien beings (the Firstborn) are experimenting with humans by taking different time slices from human history and creating a patchwork in which these various slices are loosely woven together. Cosmonauts and UN peacekeepers from the year 2037 are brought into contact with a British army unit from 1885 that includes Rudyard Kipling and later encounters Alexander the Great’s army, which must confront Genghis Khan’s horde. When the displacement first occurred, a temporal and a spatial shift occurred: The sun was at its zenith in 2037, and then it moves across the sky to a position of late afternoon; it was as if the process of time had altered its history. The various characters in the story are “castaways in time,” in a new world they call Mir.
A Spacetime Tapestry
One of the interesting conundrums that arises is that those from 2037 know of Rudyard Kipling, in this time slice a young man, and what he will go on to do. How much of his future should they tell him? And how much of what they tell him influences what he is to become? Or if (when) he dies in Mir, is there a Rudyard Kipling in England in 1900 who will still write his books? They also discover a discontinuity from horizon to horizon at one point where the time slices have been stitched together, which is explained by tectonic shifts over the thousands of years difference in the time slices. The rips in the “tapestry” of spacetime were sewn together piecemeal to create this new reality, so the Firstborn could observe (through great “eyes” in the sky) how these humans would behave in these disjointed circumstances. One of the time-displaced travelers, Bisea, is sent “home” to 2037 by the Firstborn because she asks them to do so (through the Eye).
This is where the second book, Sunstorm, picks up Bisea’s story. She comes home to a gigantic disruption of all electrical and communication signals by geomagnetically induced currents prompted by an unusual sunspot. Research following this event revealed that a much more devastating occurrence would strike Earth, from the sun, in less than 5 years, a sunstorm that would destroy Earth. Scientists build a kind of shield in space to deflect as much of the sun’s eruption as possible, and it is roughly 90% successful. Three super- intelligent computers, Thales, Aristotle, and Athena, play a major role in saving Earth. What the humans discover, through Bisea’s insight from her time in Mir, is that the Firstborn had caused the sunstorm deliberately, to stop the wasting of useful energy by humans on Earth. As this plan had failed, surely they would try again.
Parallel Corridors of History
An earlier book by Baxter, The Time Ships, delved even more deeply into time and time travel. Baxter’s story purports to pick up where H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine had left off. The Time Traveler goes on a new journey, but not as far forward in time as before (to 657,208 CE). He is captured by Morlocks, but these are very different from those he met before—civilized, very technologically advanced. One of them, Nebogipfel, takes an interest in him and concludes that the Time Traveler himself had caused a Divergence of Histories by relating to friends the details of his last journey. One of the friends, the Writer, had written it down, and it served as a warning. The population had avoided the conflict of that other history, had continued to grow, and had harnessed the power of the sun.
The Time Traveler learns of the work of Kurt Gödel in the 1930s, whose incompleteness proof showed that the quest for knowledge could never be completed; the Morlocks had taken on the task of accumulating knowledge, an infinite task. The Time Traveler, whose real intent was to go back to his own time to destroy his original time machine, convinced Nebogipfel to go with him on the pretense that it would be a quest for more knowledge. Nebogipfel explained to him another theory of Gödel’s, of rotating universes that explained the existence of parallel corridors of history and the possibility of journeys forward or back in time and to other parallel histories. (This theory can, in fact, be found in Gödel’s work.)
The Time Traveler visits himself as a slightly younger man (one of the paradoxes of time travel) to try to convince him not to build the Time Machine, a destroyer of worlds. His earlier self points out the logical difficulty of the Time Traveler being there to persuade him not to build the Time Machine as if the machine had never been built. A juggernaut from 1938 appears (another time anomaly) to protect the development of the science of the Time Machine and carry the Time Traveler and his earlier self forward to a London at war with the Germans. The Time Traveler and his earlier self meet and talk with theorist Kurt Gödel, who had deduced the existence of multiple histories. They have to flee a serious bombing attack in a new Time Car, and travel back in time roughly 50 million years. Their Time Car is wrecked in the landing, and they begin slowly reconstructing it. They are found by a British expedition from 1944 that has come back in time to find time-traveling Germans and keep them from altering history to suit their own evil purposes. When the British find the Germans, the Germans drop a bomb and the British must flee because of the dangers of the residual radiation. The British set up a colony safely removed from the bomb site and begin raising children.
The Next Stage of Evolution
Nebogipfel finishes rebuilding the Time Car, and then the Time Traveler and his earlier self travel forward into an unknown future. They find a colonized moon and a set of inhabited space stations, and then (by 1891) they find an Earth abandoned for travel farther out into space, leaving an Earth where the environmental equilibrium had been destroyed. They are about to die in this ice-world, but they are rescued by pyramid-like machines, the Universal Constructors, who have repaired the damage done to their bodies. These “machines,” as Nebogipfel points out, are really “alive”—they reproduce and have memories, and they are conscious. They are the descendants of humans. They inhabit a Sea of Information, and they will not die out as a species, as humankind had. Day after day, Nebogipfel tapped into the information sea of the Constructors, and discovered that the Constructors intended to build huge Time Ships to go deep into the past. They want the Time Traveler to go with them, to the beginning of time. The project might take a million years, so Nebogipfel proposes that they go forward a million years in their Time Car to join the expedition. They do so, then begin (disembodied, absorbed into the information sea) the journey back through time. Near the end they travel through “cosmic shrapnel” and Nebogipfel tells the Time Traveler that space is folding on itself, that space and time are twisted until they are indistinguishable, a One. He and the Constructors (their consciousnesses) begin passing forward in the time of a new universe, one that was best (“optimal”) for the Constructors. The Time Traveler is returned to his body and his original Time Machine and, along with Nebogipfel, to his home in England, where he gives the Plattnerite (the substance that powered the Time Machine) to his younger self. He then remounts the Time Machine and takes it forward to 802,701 CE, a day before the time when he had lost his beloved Weena on his first time voyage (back in one history, among the many); this time he manages to save her.
Thus Baxter mingles science fantasy with science truth and science speculation to expand the limits of our thought about time.