RogerBW's Blog

This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone 28 September 2019

2019 science fiction romance novella. Red and Blue are soldiers on opposite sides in a war that ranges across worlds and up and down the timelines. But then Red finds a letter in the ashes of a battlefield, that reads: Burn Before Reading.

The me of several years ago would have been frustrated by this book. The possibilities of a relationship formed across time seem largely to be ignored: for example, the correspondence never gets out of order from one to the other. Blue scores a major coup in the conflict, and what that coup consists of is barely explained.

But this isn't that kind of science fiction. This is lyrical poetry in prose form, a story of two ferociously smart people who, as the cliché has it, find they have more in common with their opposite number than with their own side. Each of them is from a potential future that doesn't have a great deal of room for individuality… but even that is to over-simplify.

The structure is oddly disjointed: Red, on a mission, finds a letter from Blue, and we get the text of it. Then we shift to Blue some time later, who finds a letter from Red, and we get the text of that. This makes for constant gaps and jumps in sequence even though the overall order of events is maintained; it's a friction to the reader, but a friction that contributes to the story.

This is what literary science fiction can be when it's done right, when it remembers to tell a story and have characters rather than vanishing up a hole of "look how clever I am".

Eligible for nomination for the 2020 Hugos, and I'll be amazed if it isn't among the finalists.

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