It’s the year 2999, and what do you know? The world is at war… or else what’s left of it is.
Only “the remnants of two great nations” remain—Russia and Germany, refreshingly—and having lasted this long, and suffered so much over said centuries, neither side will accept anything less than the eradication of its eternal enemy. Thus, they fight. But with the Earth a nuclear blast-blackened shadow of its former self, the only battleground they have at hand is the past.
The thing is, we’re both spread thin. I mean, three thousand years, and only a couple of hundred agents to police them. No wonder we miss things. But then, so do they. It’s a game of chess—the most complex game imaginable—only the moves can be anything, and the board…
The board is everywhere and any time.
Our narrator Otto Behr is, at the outset, an agent engaged in an operation in the latter days of the Crusades when he’s pulled out of the period to assist with a major manoeuvre in World War II era Germany. Here, another operative has been helping Hitler win the coming conflict at the same time as attempting to temper his more monstrous qualities. Sickening as it is, Seydlitz’s plan is borderline brilliant, and abominably ambitious. It’s “a direct assault upon the very heartland of Russia—and if this works…” why, if this works, the long war will be all but won.
You might think that’d be that, but it’s not, natch:
You see, nothing is ever straightforward in Time. If we both did the same old things, time and again, it would soon become predictable. And though the aim is to win—to eradicate the enemy—there is also a feeling, and I know I’m not alone in this, that the game is of itself a satisfaction, and a deep one at that.
I like to outguess them, to prove myself not only quicker and tougher, but also smarter than they are. They outnumber us three to one and they are good […] but we are better. We have to be simply to survive.
Surviving what’s to come will be all the harder, however, because Russian agents have been aware of Germany’s great operation from day dot, and before it can come to something, they step in, seize Seydlitz, and use his DNA to infiltrate the future, too.
Otto’s only option is to travel to an untouchable point in the past—namely the where and the when in which the secrets of time travel were unravelled, shortly before the bombs that brought on the apocalypse were dropped:
The city is a high-rise sprawl, stretching away for miles on every side, a densely packed mass of gargantuan, slab-like buildings, contrasted here and there by a slender spike or two, thrusting up like the spears of giants. To the north the spaceport glows orange, like a furnace, while to the left […] is the dark, distinctive form of the Gefangnis, the Guild’s prison, its windowless outer walls the very symbol of abandoned hope. […] It’s an astonishing vista, and yet the eye only dwells on such details for an instant before being drawn to the fortress itself, to its mile-high adamantine walls, its massive central gate, its battlements and, soaring above it all, the nine great towers, the Konigsturm at the centre, dominating all.
In The Empire of Time, David Wingrove demonstrates once again the impeccable sense of setting that made even the more mundane moments of Chung Kuo remarkable, but of all the historical hotspots his latest tale takes us to and through, Neu Berlin—complete with its giant, genetically engineered Ubermenchen—is certainly the most memorable. “There’s never been a city like Neu Berlin, not before or since, and though much of it is architecturally quite brutal, its scale is something else.”
It’s here that The Empire of Time gets really good, too. Beforehand, as the synopsis suggests—and I haven’t even mentioned the many pages Otto spends slavering over a pretty lady in the past—the narrative is sadly scattershot, such that some readers likely to love the narrative’s latter half will be rebuffed by the time it takes to get there, not to speak of the tedium that wreaths some of these extended digressions. Yet when Wingrove finally arrives at The Empire of Time’s throughline, the whole mind-boggling ballgame begins again, and it’s as gripping a spectator sport as any of the superlative science fiction released recently.
There isn’t an awful lot to Otto, but what there is—his unswerving love of his country, his habit of becoming besotted by beautiful women, and his recklessness, yes—paints an appealing picture: of a time-travelling 007 of sorts. He has a Q and an M as well; in that regard, all that The Empire of Time lacks is a single wicked villain for Otto to match wits with.
That said, I expect a dastardly antagonist to emerge momentarily—after all, The Empire of Time is but book one in a series of three. Actually, scratch that. As the author asserts in the introduction:
Roads to Moscow was originally written, and was always intended to be, a singular work, though of considerable size. […] And so it is presented. Only… not in one book but three; those three books intimately connected—laced together, if you like—to form a seamless whole. Three books which, part through design and part through chance, came to chart the various stages of Otto’s ’education’; an education that, in a very real sense, is the work. What Otto learns, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, reflects how we, as a species, must change. Or die. (p.vii)
And so, I have high hopes for Roads to Moscow as a whole. The Empire of Time might take a while to hit its stride, but when it does—particularly given that this is the setup for a series spanning the distant past through the far-flung future—it’s well worth the effort expended, doubly so given Corvus’ deplorable decision to abandon their recasting of Chung Kuo. I dare say David Wingrove deserves better. His devoted readership undoubtedly does. But if you can’t get something done right, best to do it yourself; thus, though it might take time, the remainder of said series will be self-published subsequently.
In the interim, there’s this—and it isn’t insignificant. Indeed, The Empire of Time could be the beginning of something brilliant: Blackout meets Bond in a relentless race war Wingrove depicts with deftness and deference.
The Empire of Time is available now from Del Rey (UK)
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.