Review: TIME SALVAGER by Wesley Chu
Experience should have taught me by now there is no guarantee that a highly acclaimed book might automatically be right for me – and yet there are times when widespread praise breeds high expectations, so that when a book falls short of those expectations, I’m bitterly disappointed. Time Salvager is a case in point.
What adds a good measure of sadness to that disappointment is that this story possessed all the elements to be a good one, the kind of story I love: a fascinating premise, an intriguing journey and a promisingly complex main character. It’s a pity that such potential riches were squandered in such a way as to make it very difficult to go on, to the point I could not finish the book.
As I said, the premise sounded solid: humanity has discovered the secret of time travel but – and here is the brilliant twist that caught my attention at the beginning – uses it only to keep the present going, more or less. Earth has become a wasteland, except for a few cities and some wilderness settlements where people scrape up a miserly hand-to-mouth existence. Civilization has moved outward, colonizing other planets in the Solar System, but it’s not the kind of life one would expect from an advanced future: the overall impression is that of a dreary reality from which there is no escape, with failing technology few are able to maintain, and none to improve. The last resort of this future humanity is to cannibalize the past in the hope of shoring up the present, in a sad game of diminishing returns: it comes as no surprise that time agents – or chronmen – do not lead an adventurous, charmed life gallivanting all over the continuum, but fall prey to a lingering pall of depression that, combined with the inevitable after-effects of time travel, sooner or later brings them to rebellion or suicide.
James Griffin-Mars is one such chronman, toiling to repay the huge investment made for his training, but losing day by day the will to go on: he’s despondent, jaded, prone to heavy bouts of drinking. Every time he comes back from a mission, he finds it still more difficult to ignore the accumulated disillusionment and the guilt for the past lives he must consign to unescapable death. He’s plagued by nightmares about them and his younger sister, lost and probably dead in the turmoil that was their childhood, so that she has become the embodiment of all his failures and remorse.
While on a difficult retrieval, one whose importance will bring him and his handler very close to comfortable retirement, James unexpectedly breaks the rules, and brings back Elise, a scientist from the 21st Century, unable to abandon her to certain (and historically correct) death. After being mildly annoyed by stilted dialogs and not enough showing as opposed to telling, here I hit the first major disturbance in this story: bringing someone from the past is forbidden, because it would both destabilize the time-line and cause the transportee’s death amid horrible sufferings. This last detail is shortly revealed as false information, but at the moment of his decision whether to leave Elise to die in a radiation-plagued ocean, or to bring her to the future where she will die nonetheless, James knows nothing about that deception, so what’s the motivation for his actions? A swift (and improbable) infatuation for Elise, which seems to be the reason, does not resonate with his personality as shown up to this point, nor does it make any sense, since she would be destined to die, one way or another – at least according to what James knows.
Accepting this development took some effort, but I chose to go along and see where it would lead: unfortunately it meant starting on a road increasingly paved with clichés – and here my trust in the story suffered some mortal blows. James and Elise must now hide from James’ former employers and from their main financer, a big corporation with evil goals – because of course every time a big corporation figures in fiction it has to be totally evil and corrupt. After a few adventures, the two fugitives find shelter with a group of semi-savage people living in the wilderness: surprise, surprise, these are good-and-wise savages, who know how to live in harmony with poor, wounded Earth, and who inspire Elise to find a cure for the fatally ill planet. Single-handedly and with scrounged, sub-standard equipment, the scientist from the past embarks on a monumental effort that has so far proved impossible for people with better means, while James hops through time in search of supplies, always managing to evade the search mounted by *two* organizations bent on finding him.
I’m aware that a work of fiction requires some suspension of disbelief – after all I find talking and walking trees perfectly acceptable, just to make an example – but this goes against any logic, to the point it becomes absurd, as does James’ handler’s equally successful help to his former colleague: no one keeps him under observation, no one questions his actions in an organization where everything and everyone is closely monitored. Sorry, but that makes no sense. Even if, for the sake of adventure, I had been able to overlook all of the above, the arrival of Grace – another brilliant scientist from the past, enrolled to help Elise in her save-the-planet project – was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Grace is a wise, elderly lady of power, and yet she greets Elise with a string of spiteful repartees over James that seems to come straight from some teenage movie: the scene is not only incongruous (and again, groundless), but it transforms two brilliant scientific minds into a couple of shrews battling for a man’s affection – because that’s what women do, when they meet from across time, don’t they? Another tired, overused cliché brought up to keep the previous ones company, in an ever-growing, noxious crowd…
There is an enlightening quote from Grace that gave me a definite perspective on this story: “We’re two scientists, an alcoholic (…) and a mud-wallowing tribe in the middle of a dystopian wasteland” – it sounded like the beginning of a joke about three people walking into a bar, and that was not what I was looking for in this book – or any book, for that matter.
Moving on to greener and better pastures….