Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
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.)

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 1, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

Thoughts: A race of ethereal aliens has been guiding life on this planet for millions of years, and with humanity now a player in the game, these aliens are taking a more involved approach to things by inhabiting the bodies of people and manipulating them into prime positions to further their own goals. If that sounds sinister, well, it can be. Even the faction of aliens that wants the improvement of humanity alongside its own goals (as opposed to the Genjix, who want their own goals achieved even if it means sacrificing humanity to do so) still end up sitting inside somebody’s headspace and throwing their lives for a loop in order to turn them from nobodies into power-players.

Such is the case with Roen Tan. He didn’t ask to be partnered with Tao. Tao didn’t ask to be partnered with Roen. A lousy set of circumstances threw their lives together and now they have to deal with each other as best they can.

The relationship isn’t parasitic, though. Though Roen didn’t ask to be sucked into a world of espionage and real-life action movies, he does get some gain from Tao’s presence. He finds a reason to leave his much-disliked job. He goes from being overweight and generally unmotivated to someone more than capable of holding their own in a frantic fight. The circumstances may have been less than ideal for both of them, but by the end, Roen is a vastly different person than who he started out as. Though it could be said that Tao brought some very positive changes to Roen’s life, some I even wouldn’t mind in my own life (though not at the cost of joining up with an alien war, thank you very much), I still can’t get over the slight creepiness of the whole thing being largely nonconsensual. It was established pretty early on that once Tao took Roen as a host, the only way to cut that relationship would be for Roen to die. He didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

It does make for an interesting launch point for a story of extra-terrestrial conspiracy, however. And Chu writes this all with good sarcastic and observational humour, making a cast of very believable characters doing very believable things in a messed-up situation. Roen was an excellent character to follow, in no small part because I could relate very well to him. I think just about anyone who’s felt stuck in a rut and yet little motivation to find a way out will be able to do the same. Combined with intense action scenes and very real reactions to them (Roen panics when first put into combat situations because surprise, he’s never been in one before and suddenly people are shooting at him), you get a fantastic story that’s easy to fall into and one that hints at much more exciting adventure to come!

People tell me that the sequel, The Deaths of Tao, has a greater focus on the Prophus/Genjix war, and I’m very much interested in seeing further into that. Chu sets up just enough to get readers interested without giving too much away, providing good backstory in the way of Tao explaining some of the history to Roen, but there are a lot of questions that go unanswered and I’m curious to see how it all plays out. Action scenes are all well and good, and they’re part of what makes The Lives of Tao so much fun, but I like a fair bit of meat to my stories, and it’s good to hear that future books in the series provide just that.

If you’re looking for some sci-fi that’s got good action and fantastic dialogue but still comes off as a light fun read, then definitely check out The Lives of Tao.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)