One of the Facebook groups I’m a member of has recently been discussing This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. This was my contribution to the discussion.
I have finally, at the second attempt, managed to read This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It was a struggle that seemed to get harder the further I got through the book. And I remain mystified by the adoration it has received, and the fact it has won just about every popular vote award going. What is it that everyone else seems to see in this book that remains completely opaque to me?
Okay, it’s nearly Christmas, do I really want to play the Grinch here? But what the hell, this is why I felt so depressed, so alienated by the book.
For a start it felt wearily familiar. In the end I decided that it is a rehash of Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (1958), a novel that is probably shorter than this novella. Any story about a time war is probably influenced by Leiber, and when the two characters talk of themselves as “Change agents” (60) it is, I am sure, an explicit acknowledgement of Leiber’s Change War. The Big Time is then mashed up with Transition by Iain Banks (2009) which, if anything, is probably a bigger influence than Leiber, though it goes unacknowledged. And this unholy melange is then recast as if it is part of Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine (1991). Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of these origin stories, but a half-baked and sentimentalized rehash does nothing to thrill me with a sense of the new.
[Among the comments on my original post was the suggestion that readers today probably haven’t read the Leiber, and perhaps not even the Banks (he’s on a lot of TBR lists, someone said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is read). All of which is perhaps true. But my comment was about the authors of the work (and about this particular reader). The passing reference to “Change agents”, a formulation that I remember encountering only once in the novella, is so at odds with every other reference to the time war that I feel sure it is meant to be a nod towards Leiber’s Change War stories. So I think there is that influence in there, and anyway these were the things that leapt out at me as I was reading the story, so they certainly affected my own response.]
But this familiarity is not limited to the so-predictable source material. The story structure plays exactly the same riff over and over again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. The book is made up of pairs of chapters, each pairing following an identical pattern. In a chapter told in third person, one of the two central characters takes part in what is presumably a mission within the ongoing time war. This mission may involve lots of deaths, though any brutality is off screen and the dead are so anonymous that they could as easily be a mass of shop window dummies lying in the field of battle; or it may involve saving someone, though again the people involved are so anonymous that we cannot care whether they live or die. Either way, the exploits are so shorn of context that they tell us absolutely nothing about the war, other than the fact that it is an incoherent mess of unconnected incidents that reveal nothing of any aims, abilities or strategy that either warring side might possess. When, at one point, Blue writes: “what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I” (36), she tells us precisely nothing about either the war or the characters. This first chapter in the pair invariably ends with the viewpoint character discovering a letter that is encoded in the most ludicrous way imaginable, in the feathers of a bird, in seeds, in water bubbling in a kettle.
The second chapter of the pair is, of course, the letter. There are only two characters in the book: Red is an agent for one side in the war, Blue is an agent for the other. The exchange of letters spells out the developing love story between the two putative enemies. Honestly, if I were exchanging letters with an enemy who, moments before, was tasked with killing me, I might be rather more suspicious of their motives than either Red or Blue seems to be. But then, the cards are heavily stacked in favour of romance in this novel; that the background is a war seems to be an incidental matter, there for nothing more than local colour.
I did, at first, imagine that in an epistolary novel written by two authors, each would take one character to give her a distinctive voice. Well, if it happened here, the chapters were then edited to within an inch of their life, yielding up a smooth voice without any distinction between the two characters. This, of course, is at least partly intentional (really, if you don’t spot the only possible way this story could play out within the first three or four chapters, you’re simply not paying attention), but I think the greater intent is to give the whole a romantic, poetic feel. Though in truth the language is poetic only because none of it is rooted in anything concrete. The actual within this work is so tenebrous that it eludes anything remotely resembling a referent. That lack of substance, the sense that there is no solid world to anchor the airiness of the romance, extends to the non-letter chapters also, so much so that there is an unforgiveable sense that exactly the same voice is providing the narration as well as both of the letters. I suppose that part of the fun of the story lies in the extravagance of the scenarios through which the two characters move as they seek out the next letter. Though it does bother me that none of this makes sense, so that when you get “a game of chess in which every piece is a game of Go” (109), for example, I really don’t have any idea what that is supposed to mean.
[Some of those who commented on my post said that they discerned a distinct difference between the two voices. To each his own, but that certainly didn’t come across to me.]
Actually, this use of language for effect rather than for sense, this notion that if you bundle enough images together somehow they will create an impression of something awesome, brings me to another problem I have with the story. There is a carelessness here that is evident both in the way the language is used and the story that the language is used to tell. When we are told, for instance, that “Red wins a battle between starfleets in the far future” (98), you wonder, given that the characters wander freely back and forth through time, what is meant by far future? Far future of what? That is thoughtless writing. But then, on the evidence of this story, I don’t think that either El-Mohtar or Gladstone has sat down to work out what a time war might be like and how it might be structured. Presumably Red and Blue are immortal (or at least as near immortal as makes no difference) agents who travel backwards and forwards through time changing events in order to create a different future that favours their side. So far so simple, but then Red tells us that “strands bud Atlantises to thwart her” (47), that 30 or 40 times she has walked away from a different sinking island. So there are multiple timelines; changing one event doesn’t change the future, it just births a new timeline. In which case, what are they fighting for? What could possibly constitute a victory, or a defeat, in such a situation. If everything goes wrong, then there is another timeline where everything has gone right. And if there can be no victory, there can be no cause for war. How do you go to war with an enemy who has just got everything they want in a different timeline? Over and over again throughout the novel I came up against the same notion: that none of this makes sense. There is a time war not because there is any functional purpose in the war, but because the authors need their two lovers to be on opposite sides in a conflict. This is Romeo and Juliet with two Juliets but otherwise no change: starcrossed lovers on either side of an age-old quarrel they cannot repair, needing to keep their affair secret, and leading to seeming death. Make the houses of Montague and Capulet into the enemy camps in a time war and lo you render the whole thing science fiction.
In other words, all of this, the time war, the battles and escapades, the ludicrous devices for hiding a letter, are meaningless. They are the one-dimensional, crudely-painted scenes designed to be pushed out onto the stage behind the star-crossed lovers so we can pretend their romance is being played out in something that passes for a real world. Anything actual, anything that might involve the crude and the cruel, the bloody and the miserable, the things that go wrong and the things that raise doubts, is banned from this world. This is all about the feels – “Red likes to feel. It is a fetish.” (4) we are told right at the start of the novel – about the sweetness, about things not going wrong, about happy ever afters. It is a story for children who want to be reassured about the world, not for those of us who want to explore and understand and confront the world. It is saccharine and it sets my teeth on edge, and that in the end is what I really dislike about this facile fantasy.