Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

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Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: 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.

Thoughts: Imagine a future where the ability to manipulate time has not only been discovered, but where doing so is something of an elite profession filled with not-entirely-stable professionals. Imagine a future with dwindling resources, where the only logical course of action is to jump back in time and gather the resources that nobody will miss. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman, someone who does those time-jumps, elite among the elite. He’s seen World War 2. He’s met the woman who made the Time Laws that he lives by. But it’s not until a prime mission, one hat could buy out his contract and allow him to retire, that he starts to break those laws and unravel pieces of a mystery that could very well have created the society in which he lives.

It seems to be an inherent problem of time travel stories, that at some point, the paradox will hit. What if you go back in time and accidentally kill your great-great-grandmother. Your family line is broken, so you will never be born, which means you’ll never go back in time and kill anyone. Cycle ad nauseam. Chu manages to sidestep most of this with a series of strict Time Laws that are designed to avoid making ripples in the timeline. Only take resources that would be destroyed in events soon after your salvage, so anything missing would be assumed destroyed. Never bring anyone from the past back with you. Sometimes ripples can’t be avoided, and what’s done has further-reaching consequences than anticipated, especially when rogue chronmen break a rule or two. Most of the time, the timeline can self-heal, setting things to rights by itself. You accidentally save someone who was supposed to die in World War 2, and they go on to have a family? No matter, a car crash will kill them all, so their descendants don’t exist and so can’t contribute to change. The timeline is something of a fluid thing, subject to change but still capable of setting itself to rights so long as the diversion isn’t major.

All this careful manipulation, though, essentially means that an event near the end comes out of left field. You spend the whole book thinking that the time travel paradox will be avoided,, and then something gets revealed that essentially says: the current timeline was created through the manipulation of the past by someone on the current timeline. BAM, the paradox is back in play. I do hope that the sequel to Time Salvager will involve some multiverse theory, because otherwise cause followed effect. Well, cause still followed effect, but at least some multiverse stuff would help balance that out a bit.

In terms of characters, Chu comes through once again with a cast of diverse and well-developed people to lead the story. It’s always a treat to read his works, because he writes such realistic characters, ones that feel like proper people and not stereotypes or caricatures. James is a misanthropic seen-it-all man who’s riding the edge of death by drink, and the death by lack of medical attention when he goes rogue. He’s not always a great guy, not always right in his action, and is frequently selfish and gruff. Which makes him the kind of person who you don’t really want to associate with in real life, but who is great to read about, because he’s so unlike most SFF protagonists. Elise has an air of innocence and hope to her, which fits well for someone who believes that what she’s doing can change and improve the world, but without the usual naiveté that tends to get portrayed a lot in similar characters. She’s optimistic, but she’s no fool. And don’t even get me started on how interested the Mother of Time is, once you get to see her more!

As sci-fi thrillers go, this is definitely one to pay attention to. It’s more than just a frenetic romp through time and space. There are running themes about corporate transparency and limits on power, and ecological crises in the making and their consequences. While these are definitely hot-button issues today, their inclusion in Time Salvager is appropriate and done well, coming across as part of the plot rather than an attempt to preach to the reader. Which, honestly, I actually find to be the best way to convince others of a cause; you don’t beat them over the head with a message, but you include that message in other works, so that people get exposed to the idea in ways they find enjoyable in the first place. Even if you don’t have much interest in those themes in today’s world, it’s hard to argue with the presentation that Chu gives in Time Salvager.

What it all boils down to is that this is a book well worth checking out. I admit I’m not usually big on either hard sci-fi or thrillers, but when Chu writes something, I will read it. And enjoy it. He works magic with words and makes a tight fast story that I find very hard to put down. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see where the story’s future lies.

(Received for review from the publisher.)