Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review - Time Salvager by Wesley Chu

Short review: James Griffin-Mars breaks the first law of time and becomes a fugitive from justice while trying to save himself, his companions, and the Earth itself.

In the far future
Men go salvage back in time
Don't salvage people

Full review: James Griffin-Mars lives roughly a thousand years in the future in a world in which humanity has colonized most of the Solar System, but in the process has consumed its resources and wrecked the Earth. Rather than merely making do with what they have left, humanity has turned to the past, sending "chron-men" like James back in time to recover equipment and other resources just before they vanish from history. All of these elite time travelers are supposed to follow the "laws of time" laid out centuries earlier by the "Mother of Time" Grace Priestly, which guide and restrict what the chron-men can and cannot do in their sojourns to the past.

Despite being at the top of the heap in an elite profession with high pay and extensive privileges, James is not a happy man. The stresses of working as a chron-man plus some pretty significant personal issues have taken their toll. James drinks heavily, fights at the drop of a hat, and is generally surly and unpleasant to most people. In addition to the progressively increasing nausea induced by time travel, the psychological toll of meeting so many people in the past just as they are about to die has begun to seriously wear upon him, reminding him of his own lost younger sister. Unfortunately, James also cannot quit, because no other profession is nearly as lucrative and he is committed to working to the end of his twenty year contract, encouraged by financial exigencies to accept riskier and riskier jobs for the larger pay outs. Eventually matters come to a head, and while on a hazardous and highly unorthodox mission to recover equipment from the Nutris Station, James violates the prime law of time travel and brings doomed researcher Elise Kim back to the future with him.

This sets the plot in motion, as James proves to be spectacularly inept at keeping his illegal companion a secret, and before too long Auditor Levin Javier-Oberon is on his trail for violating the Time Laws. As if that wasn't bad enough, Valta Corporation's Securitate Kuo forces her way into the pursuit, using Valta's economic clout to allow her to dominate the hunt with her ruthless methods, much to Levin's consternation. The story becomes an extended, high-paced, and action-filled game of cat and mouse as James tries to hide from his pursuers while also hopping back in time to supply Kim with the equipment she needs to possibly reverse the blight that has consumed Earth's oceans and also provide for the small community of scavengers with whom the pair have taken up residence. The only real flaw in the book is that Securitate Kuo is portrayed in a manner that is so unreasonably mustache-twirling evil that she is simply not believable. When she demands that villagers be moved summarily, that is callous, but she has something of a basis for her position, but when she insists that the inhabitants of an entire community be annihilated because they unknowingly traded with a fugitive, she steps into the realm of cackling cartoon villains. It seems like this extreme portrayal was included to bring her into conflict with Levin, but it seems like there should have been a better way to do this than to transform her into a Snidely Whiplash style caricature.

Time travel is an inherently difficult genre to write, as the questions it raises often sink the narrative with contradictions and plot holes. Time Salvager poses some interesting questions, at least some of which I hope will be answered in future volumes. For example, chron-men like James go back in time to recover stuff ranging from massive Titan generators to lumber and coal. But we are told that many of the problems faced in the "now" of the book are because much of the technology of the past has been lost. So why don't the chron-men go back and recover this lost knowledge? One wouldn't even have to worry about waiting until something was about to be destroyed to avoid disrupting the time stream, because you could just copy the information and bring the copy back. Given the volume of corruption that is revealed in the course of Time Salvager it might turn out that some powerful group is prohibiting such information retrievals, but thus far this seems like a relatively odd plot hole. Another plot element that I hope is addressed is that there are no time travelers from the future. Given that ChronComm is busy sending people back in time in the "present", one has to wonder if there is some organization (or organizations) in the future sending people back to now. As far as the book goes, no one seems to be aware of any people coming back to the "now" of the book from the future, and if I were an inhabitant of that time period, that would worry me. I suppose the lack of curiosity about such issues could be attributed to the fact that everyone spends much of their time scrambling just to survive in the harsh, dystopian world presented in the book, but it seems like something that someone would be thinking about them.

There are some other issues with the time travel in the book that seem like they are less amenable to explanation. We are also told that time travel is positional as well as temporal - in order to travel to an event in the past, you have to travel to the spot where the event took place. If you want to travel to an event that took place in the eastern Mediterranean, you have to go to the eastern Mediterranean and then time travel to the chronological spot you want to get to. But the entire Solar System is moving. The Sun travels in its orbit around the center of the Milky way at about eight hundred thousand kilometers an hour. Over the course of a few hundred years, that means that the Sun, and the rest of the Solar System, will move hundreds of millions or even billions of kilometers. So why don't time travelers appear in empty space millions of miles deep into the Oort Cloud? The other question the time travel in the book raises is the incredibly comprehensive nature of the records that ChronComm seems to have about the people of the past. On one of his jaunts to World War II, James has to kill a German soldier. When he returns he finds out that the soldier was supposed to survive and live for a couple of decades more before he and his family were all killed in a car crash. For a society situated a thousand years into our future, those are some incredibly accurate records. Even now our records of what happened in World War II are often sketchy, so to imagine that they will be that well preserved that far into the future stretches credulity a little bit. The other question that comes to mind is in reference the the "laws of time", which don't appear to be actual physical laws of nature, but are rather just a collection of rules that Grace Priestly wrote down. Given that, why does everyone follow them so slavishly? Why does no one even question these laws until Grace herself suggests such to Levin? The lack of curiosity and initiative displayed by many of the characters in the novel seems puzzling.

The final somewhat odd plot hole in the book relates to the improbably good records pf the past that this future society seems to have. The reason they need these records is that having them allows the chron-men to avoid disrupting the time stream and changing the course of history. But given that the world of the future is a horrible wreck, why is everyone so very interested in preserving it? The Earth is almost uninhabitable due to environmental decline and the ravages of multiple nuclear wars, to the extent the Solar System hasn't been stripped of resources and also devastated by war, it is controlled by authoritarian corporations that control the lives of their employees almost completely. So why would anyone be interested in preserving the timeline of history that led to this miserable dystopian future? Why hasn't anyone suggested intentionally changing the past in order to change the present? Where are the rogue time travelers who are trying to do just that? The book does show us rogue time travelers, but they only seem interested in seeking refuge in the past so they can experience hedonistic pleasure, which seems like a valid reason to stray, but doesn't seem like it would be the only reason. Surely it has occurred to someone that altering the past might actually make the world of the present a better place, so why has no one tried this? These are the sorts of questions that time travel stories always spark, and these are the sorts of questions that make them so difficult to write. I hope that Chu is able to deal with some of them in future books, because if he doesn't, it seems like there will have been some serious missed opportunities.

Is Time Salvager sunk by these issues? No. In fact, that these questions exist is a testament to how good the book is. A time travel themed book that didn't raise these sorts of questions would be unimaginative, and probably uninteresting. When one combines this collection of questions with the fast-paced and action-packed story provided in this book, the result is something that is definitely worth reading. Not only is the book full of action, it is also full of interesting characters doing interesting things, most notably Elise Kim and Grace Priestly, both of whom come from outside of the present time and manage to offer perspectives on the world that upset the assumptions of the "present day" inhabitants, a fact that I don't think is accidental. From the world-weary James, to the optimistic Elise, to the cynical Grace, to the loyal Smitt, to the idealistic Levin, to the villainous Kuo, the story offers the reader characters that are guaranteed to generate equal parts endearment and rage in the reader, and puts them ringside for a gripping plot that sends everyone on a collision course with one another.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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