Thursday, November 05, 2020

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

It's pretty rare for a tour de force to be by two people. But this is, and they are, and so good for them.

This Is How You Lose the Time War is already an award-winner (Hugo, Nebula, Locus, BSFA, Aurora), so you probably do not need me to tell you about it, or its two tour de force-y authors, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

But I'll tell you a few things anyway. Not about the authors -- I've read a book or two of Gladstone's (and have more on the shelf, waiting), and I think I've been in the same room as one or both of them a few years back, when I still went to SF conventions, but that's the total extent of my knowledge. But I can burble about the book, since that's what this blog is for.

There's the usual Time War going on -- two futures (I guess mutually exclusive, though this is not a book to get into the how and the why) are battling across a largish sheaf of timelines, and seem to be mostly engaged in a Cold War-ish struggle where one makes the other slightly less likely, and then the other responds in turn.

(Since there are already a whole bunch of timelines, I am not 100% sure why there has to be a Time War, but I suppose asking if a war is necessary always has exactly the same answer, in fictional worlds or true ones.)

Two of the greatest agents of their respective far-future utopian polities are at the center of this novella. Red comes from the Agency, the Mechanists of this particular set of options. Blue is from Garden, the Shaper equivalent. They are each among the very best at what they do: and what they do is change history.

(Often by murdering millions -- but they do it stylishly. And those are historical people anyway, so it's like they're dead already. Totally doesn't count. And most of the time they're only killing individuals, anyway -- sometimes they don't even kill anyone!)

These two women [1] keep coming into contact with each other, as top operatives will in a fictional war. They begin to exchange letters, each cunningly hidden in ways that only the other will be able to find and read. They taunt each other, since they are each certain of their own victory. They praise each other, seeing a near-equal worth to test their skills against.

And, of course, their relationship deepens. But what relationship is that, actually, between two people who have never met and probably cannot meet?

Lose the Time War is written wonderfully, in a slashing, quick style for the alternating narrative chapters about Red and Blue, and in rather similar voices for the letters by Red and Blue themselves. El-Mohtar and Gladstone write in the best SF novella fashion, giving only the fewest, coolest details and jumping headlong from one precisely-imagined era to another over and over again. It is quick and relentless and cool and precise and magnificent, like the two engines of death at its center.

For a book about two gleefully unrepentant mass murderers falling in love, you could hardly do better than this. You'll hardly even notice how many entire worlds and timelines they're slaughtering to send each other messages, or care about the megadeaths. You could hardly complain, with "Time War" right there in the title.

If, after finishing reading it, you happen to think about just how many people, how many entire societies, each of them have slaughtered...well, that's how you lose the time war.

[1] Both seem to identify as female, but are deeply post-human each in their own ways. So take that word very, very vaguely.

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