When I was younger I remember reading a short description of Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time when it was reissued for the Science Fiction Book Club and being fascinated by the idea of a time war. I still haven’t gotten around to reading Leiber’s exploration of that idea, so I can’t say for certain how closely Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone were informed by it in their new co-authored novel, This is How You Lose the Time War.
The general idea of a time war though is fairly straightforward and has been a recurring science fiction trope since Leiber’s work. However, the execution of one (and writing a narrative that follows the agents waging one) is anything but. The theme works like this: assuming two sides have different desired and opposing outcomes for the future and that any future is the outcome of a millions accumulated events, waging a time war means sending agents or soldiers into the past to change the outcome of these events so history flows one way or another. This could be changing the outcome of a historic battle, causing the assassination of a specific individual, or even things more subtle like influencing a particular political leader as she develops her ideas.
Now overlay all this with a love story. That is what El-Mohtar and Gladstone are about in this very gorgeous book. The two sides in their eponymous time war are diametrically opposed: one pushing history toward a technological utopia with forces overseen by the cool, calculating Commandant and the other toward a future in which everything — even the stars themselves — has become part of a vast organic hive-mind called Garden. The Commandant’s best agent is Red, and her opposite for Garden is known as Blue. It’s difficult to classify either agent, who are the dual protagonists of the story, as human. Both have been synthetically created by their respective side with immense power, in addition to time travel (the mechanics of which are kept vague throughout). Both identify as female, and both fall very much in love.
The structure of the book is crafted around a series of letters between Red and Blue as they strike up a dangerous, flirtatious rivalry that quickly grows into much more. Each short chapter (which read almost like vignettes or carefully crafted prose poems) follows either Blue or Red in a different period from Earth’s past to the far future as the one’s missions are foiled or obstructed by the other. Each chapter ends with one finding a letter left by the other. The imagery throughout, especially in the letters, is striking, bringing each new landscape to life, and consistent enough it’s hard to tell where one author’s writing ends and the other’s begins.
If you’re looking for a riddle to parse or for a tangled, hard sci-fi puzzle-box of time travel to unravel, this book isn’t it. (If you’re looking for that, I recommend the wonderfully informed The Rewind Files by Claire Willet]. The tidy little time-loop at the heart of This is How You Lose the Time War is fairly obvious from the first chapter and won’t cause too much surprise when it comes full circle (though it is quite emotionally fulfilling). Rather, the book shines for the shear gorgeousness of the prose and the authors’ ability to thread a love story through a dozen eras and planets with crisp, vivid vignettes studded with cultural references from poetry to Calvin and Hobbes. This, and the way El-Mohtar and Gladstone bring Red and Blue to life are the points of the work, not complexities of the actual plots of their respective factions to manipulate the time stream.
Blue, Red, and their growing passion is the engine that drives the book. The weirdness of the scenes they pass through is heightened and contrasted by the growing fervor of their letters, and this is compounded again by the way the authors play with the mode of letter delivery itself. Time travelers can, for instance, carve a letter on bones, write it into rings of a tree, or embed it in the flight or feathers of birds.
The tension in the book builds not from the time war itself but from the growing relationship between Red and Blue and the knowledge of what will happen if their superiors find out — and what they must do when they eventually, inevitably, receive the order to eliminate the other. This tension works because their futures are genuinely foreboding and their forces genuinely frightening. Red’s cyberutopic future is the less compelling of the two (working more than anything to provide contrast to Blue’s), but Blue’s self-aware organic future of Garden is terrifying in its verdant, idyllic pastoral nature overlaying an underlying alien ominousness.
In terms of the love story, Gladstone and Al-Mohtar have taken on an interesting challenge. Most love stories are anchored in the particular: shared glances, experiences, the thousand everyday details that make a relationship. And even if that part is thin, there’s always the shared particulars of the human body to focus on. But the authors here tell a love story spanning all space and time, with two protagonists who rarely share the same location and are only vaguely human.
The authors overcome this by their careful attention to the details, the beauty of the dizzying array of scenes, and by having those characters share these details through their letters in a very human way. And it works: the letters are sweet, honest, and touching — though at times the attraction between Red and Blue still feels a bit like that of two demigods drawn together by passion for the other’s power and grace rather than personality.
Yet it’s fun to watch goddesses fall in love as well as prosaic time-bound humans, and Blue and Red feel very much human in the risks they run to carve a future for each other against the flow of time itself. The end is sweeping and rewarding, and the book as a whole works to transcend ideas of gender, body, and history with a great deal of style.
Stephen Case has published fiction at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction. His reviews have appeared at Fiction Vortex and Strange Horizons, as well as his own blog, stephenreidcase.com. His last article for us was a review of The Deep by John Crowley.