After three “urban” style fantasy slash science fiction novels that made up his Tao series, Wesely Chu gives us a science fiction novel about the future with time travel elements in Time Salvager.
And while Chu is very good at world building, there is a sense that this book covers too of the same tropes in science fiction we've seen so many times before.
Much like The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (and many recent novels depicting Earths future) our planet of the 26th Century is a mess, as Earth is dying, having been devastated by war, plague, and corporate tyranny. The planets and moons of our solar system is where many live now, and humans have encountered aliens. ChronoCom is a company that uses chronmen –essentially convicted criminals who pay off their debt to society by traveling back in time to recover resources and financial treasures from the past. If they survive long enough –too much time travel can kill you- you are set free. James Griffin-Mars is one such chronman.
There are rules, of course. Every trip back must coincide with an end event, sort of like going back and “stealing” things that would’ve been destroyed anyways -so you can’t change history another words. And you definitely, most assuredly, cannot bring someone from the past into the future. But a trip to 2097 changes everything for James. There he meets Elise Kim, a scientist working on a scientific base that is about to be destroyed. While it’s destruction proved to be the catalyst for Earth’s dystopian fall, no one in the 26th Century is actually sure how and why this place blew up. But in a brief moment of humanity (or that old trope of falling in love at first sight), James brings Elise into his world of mid-26th Century. And while the media and his bosses are astounded at James breaking the number one law of time travel, this one action sets up a chain of events that puts the chronman and Elise on the run. For someone is willing to go to great strides to get Elise back. And it’s not because she holds the livability of Earth’s future in her hands. Okay, maybe just that.
While I love time travel stories and love Chu’s world building skills and his sense of humor, with Time Salvager (a start of new series it appears) I quickly realized that the book has major problems, not only with paradoxes that time travel incontrovertibly creates, but with the sense of déjà vu –we’ve seen this all before. What we get is a bunch of cobbled together set pieces that time travel and science fiction dystopian stories have a tendency to do these days, which is trying to out ape Philip K. Dicks Blade Runner type future, along with trips back to Nazi Germany (why the Nazi's?), descriptions of world events like the Big Brother Era, or the Artificial Intelligence Era (hello, Skynet) that all lead to Earth’s end. Chu also borrows a bit of themes from The Expanse series as well, with the Valta folks and their cartoon like villain Kuo. While I liked James, there was never a moment where I thought his desire to protect Elise did not have shades of creepiness to them. And Elise, whom I suspect was designed as kick-ass heroine, comes off less three dimensional than I would’ve liked. There were times I felt she was nothing more a fanboys wet dream. Meh.
Then, as the book unwinds, we discover all the lies of time travel (which is given its magical candy-like description) and the One Huge Time Travel Paradox that goes unexplained (perhaps in another book?).
I have to admit, it was a struggle to get through the book. Yes, his future is a bit unsettling. But we’ve seen it all before. I mean, if you’re going to write a tale that has been done a thousand times, at least add something new to it. Time Salvager just isn’t that.