Time Salvager is the latest novel from Wesley Chu, the classic triple threat of Author, Actor, and Stuntman (Note: not actually the classic triple threat), and is a great take on the time travel genre. In a crappy dystopian future, the only way humanity survives is by sending ‘chronmen’ (which is a great name) back to particular points in history to harvest natural resources. As makes sense with any world with time travel, it’s super duper strictly policed, and like any novel about time travel, it doesn’t take us many pages for the rules to be broken with consequences to come. Fair notice, like a fool, I only requested the review excerpt of this novel, so I only got to read around the first third of the whole piece. Mind you, by not holding out for the full length review copy, I now have no choice but to buy it. Well played Chu.
Convicted criminal 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.
James is a chronman, undertaking missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline. The laws governing use of time travel are absolute; break any one of them and, one way or another, your life is over. Most chronmen never reach old age; the stress of each jump through time, compounded by the risk to themselves and to the future, means that many chronmen rapidly reach their breaking point, and James Griffin-Mars is nearing his.
On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets Elise Kim, an intriguing scientist from a previous century, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, and in violation of the chronmen’s highest law, James brings Elise back to the future with him, saving her life, but turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, somehow finding allies, and perhaps discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.
It’s always such a nerve-wracking crapshoot to start reading a sci-fi novel with time travel. There are so many bad tropes, so many ways to screw it up, to create logical inconsistencies. There are a few ways to get around them, to set up ground rules, and the ones that form the underpinning of Time Salvager are pretty well thought out. Off the top, we just remove time travel to the future outright. You can go to the past, you can come back to the present. C’est finit. There are very strict rules about what you can and can’t do while back in time, and missions to salvage resources are times during points where somebody weird showing up and doing weird things will go mostly unnoticed. While this system does appear to help deal with a number of the usual fatal flaws of time travel, the geek in me (which is basically the all of me) still needs to raise a few questions.
The issues for me that most affect the story in Time Salvager are these: If these resources are all coming from the past, does nobody ever stop to think that the only reason everything is so crappy now is because in the past, all of the resources that could have been used to keep things working got stolen by future people? If I go back in time to take money because I’m poor, it sort of stands to reason that I’m poor because my ancestors were suddenly broke because the money was stolen by me later. Secondly, since they talk at length about ‘ripples’ being caused by actions done in the past, it is clear that things done in the past absolutely cascade forward to the present. It was never really adequately explained (though again, excerpt copy only) how it was that they managed to be aware of the changes. Granted they’d only need a little warning to send someone else back to try and fix it, but I just don’t know if I buy the changes somehow rippling forward slow enough to notice and not just having the present “be” how it was with the changes to the past.
Of course, generally I advise people to not do what I just did and pick nits like that and evaluate the work on its overall merits. So how does Time Salvager stack up? I am really really sold on being a Wesley Chu fan. One of the first books that was reviewed on this site was Chu’s debut novel The Lives of Tao (4.5 stars, one of the highest scoring debuts to date) and in that review I praised him for great dialogue, witty banter, and excellent worldbuilding, and he’s done nothing but stay the course or improve across the board. It’s a nice feeling to see a brand new author and after a lifetime of reading SFF say ‘this guy is really good’ and then have them actually turn out to be really good. I wasn’t joking in the intro when I said I need to go out and buy this book. The excerpt did nothing but make me need to find out how it ends. A great story in a great setting with solid characters, one of the better workings of a time travel plot, and what I’m coming to think of as Chu’s trademark believable and interesting everyman who can deal with his flaws to get the job done. Great stuff, would like more please.
Dan received an Advance Review Excerpt of this book from Tor/Forge via Netgalley