Humanity’s First Time Travelers Should Be Writers and Readers

Wesley Chu’s new book Time Salvager (out this week, I promise) is an extremely fast-paced time travel adventure, packing spaceships, floating cities, utopia, dystopia, Boston, and Nazis into one story while drenching it all in greasy whiskey. Michael Bay optioned the movie in a heartbeat, and by the end of Time Salvager you can see why; the book is just that action-packed.

But while the action may be big-screen, the laws that govern time travel in this novel are specifically suited for book readers. While Time Salvager doesn’t overtly state this, during the course of the narrative it becomes clear that the characters who best understand how time travel works are also the people who best understand how stories work.

(Mild spoilers ahead for Time Salvager, but nothing you don’t already learn in the first few chapters.)

Here’s the premise from the back cover:

Chronman James Griffin-Mars is no one’s hero. In his time, Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humans have fled into the outer solar system to survive, eking out a fragile, doomed existence among the other planets and their moons. Those responsible for delaying humanity’s demise believe time travel holds the key, and they have identified James, troubled though he is, as one of a select and expendable few ideally suited for the most dangerous job in history.

In James’s bleak time, chronmen are tasked by corporations and wealthy private citizens with zipping back into time to retrieve precious artifacts and superior sources of energy that can be used to fuel humanity’s declining society. We used to know how to make these superior sources of energy, you see, but we lost that information during the ensuing centuries of decline. There is nothing noble or exploratory about time travel in Chu’s Time Salvager. It is never used to save people or bring them into the future. (This is, in fact, against the law.) And no one ever travels into the future, because everyone suspects that humanity has none. Time travel is joyless; a leftover technology used to prop up a society incapable of supporting itself.

Since Time Salvager establishes time travel as the only effective method of sustaining the human race, the concept and utilization of it is treated with great care and detail. (Or at least, as much care as this bleak society can muster. Chronmen still burn out at an alarming rate.) Over the course of the book you find out how much detail has gone into establishing the best practices for salvage through time travel. Chronmen can camouflage themselves, translate dead languages, filter out harmful environments, survive in space, and even fly. All of these tools are necessary to make this book’s unique approach to time travel workable.

Whenever a character travels back to the past, not just in this book but in any story, the question of paradox immediately arises. Will the character do something that ensures they’ll never be born? (“I killed my grandpa!”) Was the character always meant to come back to the past in order to establish events that make their future possible? (I am my grandpa!”) As individuals, the concept of time travel violates our understanding of cause and effect, a process that holds together the entire universe.

We don’t like having cause without effect, and vice versa. We need reasons for things, and humanity’s progress has been nothing but attempts at reason, both broad and precise. Why does the sun rise every morning? Because it’s a god and it loves us. Why do people do bad things? Because we don’t take care of each other as much as we should. Why am I hungry? Because my body is a complex biomechanical machine that needs to process matter into energy in order to continue writing this essay. The need to identify cause and effect is more than a convenience, it is a deeply ingrained desire, and paradoxes and time travel target this desire.

The need for cause and effect also plays into how we react to fiction. Concepts like acting out of character, plot holes, and aborted arcs are all ways of identifying when fiction is unpleasurable, or even angering, to us. This anger stems from the lack or cause or effect and unless we know about its absence beforehand (like with abstract film, for instance), we tend to rank fiction that generates this anger below fiction that doesn’t.

Time travel fiction, although an intentional garbling of cause and effect, grapples with this anger head-on by acknowledging the paradox and seeking ways to resolve it. This viewpoint on time travel is at the core of how time travel mechanics work in Time Salvager. The philosophy for time travelers in the novel is that time travelers should avoid ever causing a paradox in the first place. They are to practice very. careful. time. travel.

In Time Salvager, chronmen are supposed to make as few changes as possible to the past in order, but just in case they do end up altering the past, one of two things happen. If a chronman is lucky, the changes he makes are slight and don’t last more than a few years after the chronman visited. An example of this would be if the chronman accidentally saved an old man’s life from an accident, granting the old man time on Earth that he didn’t originally have. The old man already has terminal cancer, though, so he ends up dying anyway, bedridden for the entirety of his “extra” time, with his death having the same impact on his loved ones, regardless of how it happened. The timeline sustains the chronman’s changes in instances like these because the story of the old man, as recorded by history, still contains the same ending. The cause changed, but the effects remained the same.

If a chronman isn’t lucky, then the changes they make propagate in time and create other changes that didn’t occur in established history. Let’s say that, because the old man is dying in bed instead of dying in an accident, this changes the daily routine of one of his sons. This son’s changed routine now entails visiting the old man after work, so he now drives a different route home each day. This different route is not one that utilizes Menlove Avenue in Liverpool, so the son never ends up accidentally running over Julia Lennon, John Lennon’s natural mother. Subsequently, John Lennon does not lose his mom tragically and in this new timeline he eventually goes to live with her. He doesn’t meet Paul McCartney as a result and the Beatles never form and Charles Manson never uses “Helter Skelter” as a reason to kill a bunch of people and so on and so on… In this case, the causes change and the effects change, which propagates more changes, unraveling the established causes and effects that mankind’s history is built upon. This is a paradox, and Time Salvager‘s approach is to eliminate them judiciously so that they never occur. (In this instance, another chronman would travel back and purposefully cause the accident that the old man originally died in.) Established history is just another story, really, and it is reverently treated as such in Time Salvager.

Time Salvager by Wesley ChuI think most of us consider time travel through a narrative lens; as a garbling of cause and effect. Wesley Chu’s novel goes deeper into this consideration, though, when it establishes—to crib a term from Doctor Who—fixed points in time. There is a chapter in the book where James is tasked with stealing a painting from a Nazi household in the midst of a bombing near the end of World War 2, and since James is a top-notch chronman only he is entrusted with a mission that involves such delicacy.

But why is it delicate? Because the book establishes that periods like World War 2 are too chaotic and pivotal to the “story” that we call humanity’s established history. This chapter was one of my favorites in the book, not just because of the fun involved in stealing from Nazis, but because it was positing a perspective on time travel that made storytelling a survival skill!

There are certain points within stories, be they books, movies, television, or cuneiform, that contain pivotal events that inform and propel all of the story that happens afterwards. Fiction specifically engineers these story points to deliver tales that seem larger than life and that provide satisfying resolutions, and what Time Salvager does is recognize that these points occur naturally in real life, in history, and that time travelers in particular would need to be aware of these points in order to manipulate them. This would, in fact, be their primary function.

World War 2 is a great example of history-as-story. If you consider world events as plot and nations as characters, then you begin to see various threads in history growing closer together, culminating in the war itself. Resentment in Europe after World War I, pre-war advances in physics and atomic science, European colonization of North Africa and the Middle East, the U.S.’s recovery from the Great Depression… all of these enormous “plots,” all capable of changing the world on their own, combine into World War 2.

Any fiction writer will tell you that when that much plot is in play, every decision carries enormous implications. Every element in the story has to be in the right place at the right time. From the perspective a time traveler, everything is already in the right place at the right time, you just have to avoid messing that up.

Of course, the very act of time traveling unavoidably messes that up. But the best time travelers, the ones capable of cleaning up those messes, would be the ones capable of extrapolating how the story of a person’s life will play out, how the introduction of a change will alter all other aspects of the plot.

The best time travelers are, in essence, readers and writers.

Chris Lough demands that the story of his life be altered to include more hoverboats. You can find him writing here on Tor.com and on Twitter.

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