Saturday, August 10, 2019

This is How You Lose the Time War

This summer’s reading list has included fascinating books on theology, posthumanism and the latest short story collection from the wonderful Ted Chiang.

However, this year’s revelation was a novella by the science fiction and fantasy authors/poets Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The title, This is how you lose the Time War, could have been lifted from an episode of the Russel T Davies era of Doctor Who, although structurally and thematically it owes a very heavy debt to the Culture novels of Ian M Banks.

It starts with the very Banksian scene of a covert operative, equipped with the most sophisticated in-body weaponry, viewing her handiwork in destroying single-handedly (she thinks) the armies of two interstellar empires. This is to re-set the course of future history in a direction her side sees as more favourable to their plans. In this scene of carnage, she finds an enigmatic paper note that starts ‘burn before reading’. So begins a correspondence over time and space with her opposite number, an agent of the enemy in a vast, era and galaxy-spanning time war.

Following each protagonist as they seek to shape the evolution of humanity towards their own faction’s desired outcome, the narrative shows them regularly thwarting one another. At the site of each defeat, they leave encoded messages for one another. Initially taunting, then admiring, then almost comradely before becoming full-blown love letters, these witty, passionate epistles form the backbone of the narrative. The focus of the novella is less on the time war itself, its reasons and strategies, but more on the growing relationship that the letters reveal between these two protagonists.

Full of clever wordplay, the prose sometimes becomes almost purple (which is apt, given the chosen names of the two central characters). Overall, the use of language is wonderful. Punning, poetic, emotional and droll, the writers create whole worlds and epochs in each, brief chapter, only to leave them behind as the narrative and the unfolding correspondence go forward. That the two protagonists never properly meet (although they do espy one another at a distance on a couple of occasions) makes the correspondence they share all the more powerful and revealing.

But what are the consequences? Are the protagonists going to keep their superiors in the dark for long about their emerging intimacy? Is one or other of them trying to turn the other to their side by professing love falsely? And who or what is the ‘Seeker’ who dogs their footsteps?

The narrative taunts, occasionally misdirects, and ultimately finishes on a cliff-hanger. Is it going to lead to a sequel? I expect that many will want to know how the story of the lovers who never meet pans out, but I think the power of the narrative is that it does not wrap up its threads in neat endings and leave the reader wanting more. I certainly would love to read more from both these authors.

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