Spoiler alert. This book isn’t very good. It wasn’t quite bad enough for me to stop reading it before the end, but I spent pretty much the whole time I was reading it wishing I was doing something else and thinking of all the things I might be reading instead. I read it because I’d seen somewhere on the internet that they were going to make it into a TV show, and that gave me an unfounded hope that it might be a decent book.
It’s not, though I can see how it could be made into passable TV. It’s got a tortured hero, a big background problem and a whole bunch of bitty missions which could give each episode a centre. And presumably, if they re-did it for TV, it wouldn’t keep Chu’s dialogue and exposition. As a book, all Time Salvager’s got going for it is that there’s an idea in the middle of it. It’s not a fun idea, but it’s an idea. To make the idea run, there needs to be a plot, which there is, kind of, and characters, which there are, kind of. And to make me care about the plot, or the characters, there has to be writing I can read without wincing, and the narrative has to hang together and pace right.
The idea is, like most SF ideas, suitably big and clunky. It’s the far future, and the solar system is collapsing from resource depletion, human stupidity and corporate greed, although I may have mixed up the order in which those things cause each other. The fix is to send people back in time to salvage resources which were going to be lost anyhow to some kind of catastrophe. If you want to read that book, read John Varley’s excellent short story Air Raid, or the novel (Millennium) he got out of the disastrous attempt to make the short story into a movie. Either one is shorter, more exciting and heaps better written than Time Salvager.
One of the places Time Salvager goes wrong is that it doesn’t spend enough time salvaging things. The whole notion of salvaging junk from the past is a cool one; since everything has to be grabbed from a cataclysm which would otherwise destroy it, every mission is a potential thrill ride. Which is why it could make a perfectly good TV show. Chu shows us just enough salvages to get the point across, and then bogs down the book in a vast corporate conspiracy narrative ripped out of late period Michael Crichton. By accident, our time salvager rescues the one person who might save the whole world from the plague which has destroyed it. But sinister corporate forces want her for their own evil purposes and they may even have been the ones who set the destruction in train centuries before. As I trudged towards the end of the book and realised that all it was going to do was set up the questions, it dawned on me that Chu hadn’t done anything to make me interested in the answers which may or may not pop up in whatever number of books it takes him to get this all out of his system.
Because the characters don’t interest me. There’s an exercise that writing courses encourage you to do, in which you write a description of the character and his or her history. You’re not supposed to put that description into the book - it’s just there to anchor you when you write about the things which a person with those traits and history would do. Whenever Chu’s characters stop to think or consider what they’re going to do next, it reads just like he copied and pasted the character description into the text.
It’s not the end of the world; famously most SF doesn’t even try that hard to make characters work. It usually muscles along on plot and occasional bursts of smartassery. Chu doesn’t do good smartass. I’ve complained in the past that characters in books all seem to be sharing the same sarky voice, but this book’s characters are sharing the same monotone; the one exception is a character practically written to be a TV fey sidekick, who has a vocal tic of calling everyone pet.
And then there’s the tech. Which might as well be magic. All the future types run around using magic bangles which can do all sorts of things; travel through time, store huge objects in parallel dimensions, punch people at a distance, act as radios, you name it. How? never explained. It works when the plot needs it to, it doesn’t work when the plot needs it not to, and it just makes no sense at all. Meanwhile the earth is turned into a big ball of brown crud because of a mysterious viral "Earth Plague” which apparently turns everything into mud and can’t be stopped - or even noticed until a plucky biologist coincidentally notices that it looks just like the disease she was trying to cure five hundred years ago. The Earth Plague might actually be more scientifically stupid than the zombie virus in Outpost, and that’s saying something. It’s not that I’m not prepared to believe in a virus which could somehow turn everything into mulch no matter what its species, or indeed composition, it’s that I’m not prepared to believe it could do that without anyone noticing it.
Finally, time travel. Time travel can be done well; go read Connie Willis to watch a truly gifted writer navigate the paradoxes and use them to devastating effect. The problem with writing about time travel is the same as the problem with writing about magic; it’s potentially capable of solving any problem in a single move, so you’ve got to hedge it around with rules if you’re going to have any sense of challenge in the story. Chu starts his book with a whole set of Laws of Time Travel, never really tells us what they are, and half way through the book the characters admit that they’re made up and no-one knows what the laws of time travel are, other than that apparently it’s physically debilitating to travel in time and you can’t go to the same place twice. Other than that, everyone seems obsessed with preserving the integrity of the timeline, which would make a lot more sense if the future was a happy fun place built on centuries of wonderful progress. Since the future’s a dying dump built on centuries of war, famine and holocaust, you’d think that someone would have hit the reset button the minute they figured out where it was. That’s such an obvious move for the unprincipled rulers of Chu’s future dystopia that it jars constantly that there’s no apparent reason for them not to have made it. The Chronocom agency is effectively under the control of a bunch of corporate asshats who’d skin their mothers for a nickel, and yet somehow not one of them has made the obvious move of distorting the past so that their competitors all fall into the sun. Presumably the later books are going to explain just why that hasn’t happened, but somehow I think I can let all that happen without any further attention from me.