A Review of Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s “This Is How You Lose the Time War”
Red and Blue
This Is How You Lose the Time War is a strange and beguiling work of science fiction, even by SF standards. Co-written by Amal El-Mohtar — a resident of Ottawa, Canada (where I reside) — and Max Gladstone, the novella (it runs just under 200 pages) is about two time-travelling warriors known only as Red and Blue who begin exchanging letters and falling in love, despite the fact that they’re on enemy sides. I find that a lot of science fiction is style over substance, and this book is no different. You have to read the cover flap to note that Red belongs to a post-Singularity technotopia, a point that is sadly lacking in the narrative itself. (You know that she — and yes, Red and Blue are both shes — is part of a kind of advance society that relies on technology, but the point of the setting being post-Singularity is not mentioned.)
While this may sound like I’m knocking the novella — and perhaps I am to a degree — I have to say that I did generally enjoy it. I may not have fully understood what was going on, which is something I feel when reading a fair bit of SF (again, style over substance), but that’s because the language is so poetic and yet punchy that the book becomes something of a joy to read. The style reminded me of very early Jonathan Lethem (around the time of “The Happy Man”) and you can rest assured that both El-Mohtar and Gladstone are highly intelligent and seem to know what they’re doing to those who may be more familiar with this kind of landscape than I am.
The publisher is billing this book as “Spy Vs. Spy” meets Romeo and Juliet. On the former, I don’t see it too much as the humor — while there — is kind of muted, and as for the latter, it isn’t a huge weepy everyone dies kind of tragedy. What this is about is two people (at least, I assumed they were people) reaching out to each other across a political divide, much in the way that Republicans and Democrats are so polarized today. The novel is written from the point of view of each protagonist and in the form of letters. There is no dialogue until roughly page 130 or so, when other characters enter the mix, so this is largely a book about two people having, in many ways, the most unconventional of romances.
There’s a fair bit of time hopping in the book, making it sit within the time travel genre, as Red and Blue exchange letters they’ve written in different periods. These are usually not conventional letters: they’re sometimes written in knots in rope, bee’s stings and the rings of tree trunks. This just adds to the poetry of the book, and makes the work so wonderfully odd and eccentric. In fact, because the book keeps readers on their toes in all of its peculiarity, it heightens the sense of wonder and amazement in the novella itself. The downside to all of this, though, is that few things are readily explained.
For instance, the reader will never really know why a war is taking place in the first place — let alone why it is happening throughout the threads of time. I saw the Red side as being nearly made up of by machines, and the Blue side representing humanity — but it’s not really clear if Red is a machine after all, given how the book majestically ends. But maybe this lack of an explanation is the whole point: there is no reason behind the war. It’s as though two sides have been battling together for an oppressively long time with no end in sight, no matter how many victories either side ratchets up. Sometimes the settings aren’t really clear as well: one of the places Red winds up in is Atlantis, but it turns out there are multiple Atlantises, so which one is being referred to (the mythical one or something else) isn’t explained.
I also wasn’t sure what various assassinations carried out by the characters in the novel would hope to achieve. Red participates in the death of Julius Caesar, but, if she was governed by machines, why would they care about this mark? What good would Caesar’s death do to the machine world? And why interfere in the first place, knowing how history turned out, unless this death takes place in a multiverse where Caesar lived? A little more exposition would have been helpful. To me, this is the great failing of science fiction — it cooks up all of these wonderful schemes, but never tries to explain away what they mean or what’s being served in the greater context.
Overall, I found This Is How You Lose the Time War to be a middling book. It’s great that it’s so short that you can read it in a sitting or two, but it’s also not so great that it’s so short at the expense of clarity. However, I have the feeling that this work will go over well with the Nebula committee, since it is so remarkably well-written and has a real cadence to language that is often missing from books in the genre. (I guess time will only tell. See what I did there?) So read this book if you want to experience something from a pure craftsmanship point of view. But don’t read this book if you’re looking for easy answers to plot elements. All in all, this is pretty par for the course as far as SF goes, but I’m glad to know that someone from Ottawa is among those who are working in the genre. With a little more focus on clarity and exposition, I’m sure she’ll have a great book in her — whether or not she writes it with someone else. I’ve already fallen in love with her language.
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War was published by Saga Press on July 16, 2019.
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