Friday, May 29, 2015

Time Salvager - Wesley Chu

Time Salvager is a blend of sci-fi and thriller. It’s accessible, raises clever questions, wraps them through interesting characters…and then sets off an explosion. It has a lot of the DNA of the action movie running through it, but also some interesting contemplation on the goals of humanity, and the ways and means of achieving them.

The central conceit of the novel is that there are operatives in the future, the marvellously named “Chronmen”, who travel back in time to loot resources from other, better provisioned eras. The protagonist is one such Chronman. The setting of the novel thus jumps about a bit. There are digressions into the Carthaginian period, and the second World War, but also time spent in our own near and more distant future, along with the dystopia that our protagonist calls home. At each of these locations, the author makes an effort to create a vivid and believable world, and largely succeeds.

The historical time periods will feel familiar to anyone who watched Gladiator or Indiana Jones – but each of the other periods feels similarly real. In part this is due to the level of detail and multi-layered descriptions made available, and in part it’s due to the plausible nature of the times and era presented. 

The best of these is probably the one that frames the ‘now’ of the novel – the ostensible time of the main character. That our protagonist, living in a rather unpleasant , shattered version of the world considers it normal is depressing – but that normality, that grinding sense of oppression, obsolescence and decay is transmitted, with pitch perfect acuity, to the reader. In part this is due to the wider canvas, which Chu paints with a palpable sense of dead and expectation. The dead seas. The need for technology to provide clean air. But it’s also due to the small details wrapped around the descriptions of this wider canvas. In the way that characters internal monologues simply accept their appalling situation. In the way that corporate power is accepted as a species of divine right. In the way that every vehicle is laced with grime, rust and decay except for those owned by secretive corporations.  

The author provides a multiplicity of settings, and it speaks well for the quality of the prose that each of them is both unique and believable. But the broken  ‘present’ of the Chronmen is  masterful, not just because it’s drawn well, but because the characters that inhabit it seem to carry it with them, no matter what period we find them in. The world created is in perfect harmony with the miserable, angry characters which inhabit it. The setting is as welcoming to the reader as a punch in the gut, and as forceful – because it has a terrifying veneer of the real about it, and the author’s skill has made that veneer seem frighteningly possible.

Of course the world is nothing without characters to inhabit it. Here we again get a multiplicity of viewpoints. The Chronman who acts as the protagonist  is bitter, broken, wallowing in self-interest and interested in self destruction. In part this is evoked by the setting, above; but the reader can also find it in his internal monologue, and in the fraught tone of each interaction with others. There’s some emotional damage alluded to at the start of the text, which becomes clearer as the narrative evolves – and the character evolves alongside it. Personally I would have liked to have seen more of this evolution, mined the depths of a psyche scarred by tragedy and the horror of watching countless deaths in the past – but whilst the author may not mine this as deeply as they could, what is presented is wonderfully horrifying. The Chronman as a protagonist is believable because of his flaws, his unlikable, abrasive nature – a classic antihero. If we’ve seen the archetype before, this is an excellent variation on the theme; if I say anything for the Chronman, I would say he feels worryingly human.

The same level of care appears to have been expended on the supporting cast. The central antagonist of the piece gets their own space in the text, their own internal monologue. They have a set of drives and motivations which make them seem at worst ambiguous, and at best, like the protagonist, entirely human – merely tied to a different set of moral standards. The supporting cast are well rounded, and certainly have their own goals, thoughts, motivations also – and the author does a good job of portraying of portraying the difference in perspectives across different time periods.

There’s some things in the characterisation that it would have been nice to see further developed. For example, there’s an understated romance moving through the narrative, and it actually works quite well – but the overall arc feels a bit abrupt, and it would have been good to have some more exploration in this area. Similarly, there’s a degree to which the corporations of the future act as a systemic antagonist – and whilst this works in the context of this book, it would have been interesting to see a more ambiguous portrayal, rather than one actively antagonistic. In both cases, I’m hoping the next book in the series will expand on the existing context, and give it a little more oomph; what is there in the current text is sufficient to make it believable, but it would be great to see a more multi-textual exploration of both antagonistic and romantic relationships.

Finally, the plot. This starts off as a slow burn, as our protagonist infiltrates the past for various reasons. We’re given a view of several of the characters, and introduced to the status quo. And then…things change, and we’re off to the races. In between the characterisation and the setting, there’s an action-packed core.  Wes Chu writes fight scenes with dynamic enthusiasm and a kinetic energy that (almost literally) jumps off the page. The plot has other sides of course. There’s some discussion of the ethics and morality of time travel. The subtextual discussion of the role of private and public sector in the lives of citizens. The less subtextual attempts to save the broken future. It feels like there’s something for everyone. Each of these strands is woven together into a coherent whole. Where there are narrative gaps, the quickfire pacing typically manages to elide them; there are some moments where the momentum stutters a little, but typically the book is very hard to put down.

Overall, this is a rocket of a novel. A fast-paced sci-fi thriller. It asks a lot of interesting questions, and whilst some of the answers may be a bit in-your-face, the series has a great deal of potential. If you’re in the mood for something with a unique setting, rapid fire plot, interesting characters, and a solid science-fiction feel, this will definitely be worth a look. 

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