Patterns, Guts: Style & Substance in This Is How You Lose The Time War
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose The Time War took home major genre awards, and developed an unusually intense fanbase for a standalone novella. It needs no defending. I was fortunate to read it with a few different book clubs, and was intrigued by the genteel critique of being “too literary” that a few different readers put forth. It needs no defending, but that claim—that this novella is doing something unusual for genre—is a good place to begin a cursory investigation of what makes it so extraordinary.
Obviously, “literariness” is not something new to genre speculative fiction, but there is a sense in which it has not been itself a widely celebrated quality within genre circles. I use the term loosely to refer to works which deploy defamiliarizing writing techniques at the sentence and structural level—nonlinear narratives, varied approaches to subject, stylistic diction—and draw attention to the language itself, particularly in ways that strike the genre reader as “mainstream” or “highbrow”. “MFA-ish” is a term I’ve heard used, generally not positively.
There is a tendency, when talking about science fiction and fantasy, to treat concepts as the be-all end-all. The big ideas, or the fresh mixture of established tropes. The plot is a car on a rollercoaster, and it just needs to get us to the exciting bits. The nature of an SF work’s prose—to say nothing of its prosody—is often overlooked, at least in fannish discussions. The concept of science fiction as a literature of ideas has privileged essentially transparent modes of writing: straightforward language and plots that conserve the reader’s attention for the big concepts, the dreaded novum.
Such an approach excuses the frequently atrocious writing of many genre classics, obscures the genius of writers like Octavia Butler, who reads as “timeless” precisely because her style is so carefully invisible—and downplays a long and richly weird tradition of writers experimenting with the form. Still, for pleasure readers drawn to a genre that often seems to be simultaneously offering escapism and deep scientific or philosophical ideas, a preference for “plain writing” is understandable. Using the Hugo winners as a proxy for fan preferences, and speaking broadly, there’s a clear prevalence of straightforward approaches to the novel. Jemisin’s hattrick with the Fractured Earth trilogy—which uses braided, non-linear narratives, as well as extensive use of the second person—is almost the lone exception.
Describing science fiction as “anti-style” is certainly a bit of a straw man argument, but a useful one as a backdrop to read The Time War against. From the earliest teases of its existence, there was an excitement around it exceeding the premise alone—queer enemies-to-lovers who are spies on opposite sides of a time war is a great pitch, but there are, frankly, lots of great and exciting pitches. The substance of This Is How You Lose The Time War is what grabbed so many. Those lucky enough to catch sight of it—I was in the audience of a spellbinding reading that Gladstone & El-Mohtar performed a year or two prior to publication—quickly recognized it was something special: I’ve never seen so much buzz around a work, before and after publication, especially given it’s a novella, especially given its standalone nature.
I want to draw attention to a few different areas where This Is How You Lose The Time War shines in its departure from standard SF conventions: first, looking at how it leans on genre familiarity to essentially dispense with plot and worldbuilding; secondly, a quick look at the novella’s most apparent use of style: heavy allusion and poetic language. Finally, I want to consider character development, which The Time War accomplishes through unusual and heavily metaphoric means, embracing the erotic potential of the epistolary—dialogic desire—as well a kind of investiture in objects and imagery.
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Yes—oh dear, yes—the novel tells a story…that is the highest common factor to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of truth…E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
The story this novella is telling is a love story, but one that begins after they meet and ends before they’re together—a story about a feeling, not a plot. And, on title and premise alone, readers could be forgiven for expecting rather more time war in The Time War. The occasional in-the-trenches stories like The Forever War aside, SF readers are accustomed to following the movers and shakers, the “Great” men and women of fictional histories—and, even if SF stories don’t follow their worlds’ particular Chosen Ones, it’s customary to fill the reader in on the larger picture—at least beyond short story lengths. So it’s startling, for those used to at least a strong whiff of monomyth and systematic subcreation, to spend so much time with characters losing interest in the war, and a narrative that seeks to escape rather than explain its world.
I’m fascinated by the way that This Is How You Lose The Time War can get away with this, even a little bit, thanks to how deeply even complicated science fictional ideas have entered popular culture. A post-singularity cyborg, combating some biogenetically enhanced agent of a hivemind, by altering events in multiple alternate universes to steer the timelines towards desired outcomes. It’s a wild mix of premises, and what Gladstone and El-Mohtar are canny enough to remember is: we’ve seen them all before! Even the time-travelling romance is practically a sub-genre at this point. Rather than reinventing the wheel with exposition, the authors can gesture at an idea—steampunk London, Matrix-esque virtual reality—and know the readers will pick up on it, letting them focus on the matter to hand. That current SF creators can rely on this general knowledge of once-esoteric ideas—letting them tell lively stories that would otherwise be terribly encumbered by fixation on and explanation of the fundamental mechanics—speaks to the maturity and popular reach of the genre. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which assumes a basic comfort with space opera and necromancy, is another recent example that springs to mind.
The non-linear plot of our time-traveling correspondents is only mildly so; the chronological convolutions are more thematic than particularly puzzling or paradoxical. “Like your victory, love spreads back through time.” If the detective story is the model of reading itself—the detective, with the reader, re-creating the events of the crime—then perhaps the time travel tale is the perfect vehicle for romance. Red and Blue’s relationship, like most, recasts all that came before, a retrospective teleology. Everything was leading to this moment, but only after it happened—and, because of their freedom in traveling up, down, and sideways in time’s braid, it’s literally true.
This Is How You Lose The Time War is at no pains to explain the nuts and bolts of its time travel. Paradox might exist—Blue is careful to follow the script when encountering a younger, unaware Red, and Red alludes to rules of engagement designed to minimize “ambient chaos levels” further down the timeline. And yet, there is no sense of fatalism to their actions—the very fact of the war implies a great deal of freedom. There are many strands, many universes heading down their own timelines, frequently subject to the revisions and corrections of Agency and Garden. Time travel is, perhaps, a mise en abyme of the drafting and editing process as much as it is of romantic recollection. How exactly Red and Blue find each others’ spatiotemporal snailmail addresses, and indeed what constitutes “the present” for our viewpoint characters in this malleable multiverse, how (and if) they remain singular individuals—are not questions the text is concerned with.
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The love of voices, naturally, produces the love of lips…but think, avneanyi…They never saw each other face to face.Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
What the text is concerned with is the conversation between Blue and Red. This starts with taunts and teases, ends in emotional intimacy. That arc captures us, but it’s the texture of the conversation that makes the novella such a delight—and, at least for the “straightforward SF” straw man, raises the flag of being “too literary”. Two things to briefly highlight—the heavily allusive nature of the text, and the poetic turns of the language itself.
Allusion and reference are surrounded by pitfalls for the novelist. If any real significance turns on the allusion, the text is doubly damned if the reader misses it. References risk coming across as cloying in-jokes or, worse, an invitation of comparison to superior works—borrowed jewels that don’t actually enhance the toad, as an early review of The Wasteland quipped.
But, when they land, allusions are a massively implicating technique, setting the reader as a dynamic bridge between multiple works. More pointedly, reference can create a kind of induced ironic rebound: “don’t think of a pink elephant”, got you, in the classic example. Don’t think of Eiffel 65’s 1998 pop hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, one of the many cerulean addresses Red uses—got you again. All speech is a kind of mind-control, but in allusion there’s a kind of collaboration that goes beyond the usual diegesis.
Sometimes these allusions are quite overt—Blue and Red spend some time discussing Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (and slyly reference El-Mohtar’s own NPR review of the same). Others are so subtle they can easily pass unnoticed. I’m most fascinated by the technique of explicitly spotlighting a whole class of references using the “as the prophets say” formulation. Most readers are probably familiar with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”—as sung by Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross—but flagging the line primes us to look for other prophetic pronouncements, to look them up if we need to—I wouldn’t otherwise have caught references to Edmontonian comedy group Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie or colonial theorist Patrick Wolfe.
This Is How You Lose The Time War is chock-a block with reference to the arts, to history, to jokes and songs; someday we’ll need an annotated edition. This is one of those “literary” traits that distinguishes the novella from the “standard” SF fare: even if you’re not catching them all, it quickly becomes apparent that a lot of references are being made.
They’re important here not so much for how they color the text as for how they implicate the reader—Red reading Blue, Blue reading Red, and always the reader reading The Time War. The tone and intention of the references change along with the emotional arc: in early letters, Red and Blue are clearly showing off—demonstrating their cleverness, inducing groans with intricate puns and jokes—while gestures towards Demeter, Orpheus, and 1984 color the nearly-tragic resolution. The frequency and range of allusion—the way that the novel is constantly pointing up and out of itself—make it feel larger, more expansive. There’s a part of me that is always surprised it’s only novella-length.
The novella is romantic; it’s also, in a real sense, Romantic, capital “R”. The actual poets are here in some quantity, from the early invocation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” onward. “Blue carries nothing between strands except knowledge, purpose, tactics, and Red’s letters,” they treasure their secret correspondence in between great adventures and battles in the time war, and one thinks of of Wordsworth’s “intense emotions recollected in tranquility”. Keats is here, writ in water, a snippet of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, and one thinks of his idea of the poet “continually in for, and filling, some other body”—though here it’s less Red and Blue projecting themselves into the world around them, into birds, flames, colors, as it is each other. I haven’t caught any Hopkins, explicitly, but there are bits of alliteration, even sprung rhythm, that bring him to mind: “While so enmeshed—knotting grass to grackle scold, the smell of leaf mold to sun’s azimuth—a tree swallow swoops near…” The vividness of things in the novella, the way objects stand in for the missing lover and yet remain themselves, evokes Hopkins’ instress and inscape, the act of apprehending the uniqueness of the thing.
As Red and Blue’s letters become more complex, more fanciful, their duality becomes more apparent: a letter, but also a piece of cod inside a dead seal. A letter, but also a bee dancing in the air, and its sting. This is not, or not merely, cryptography. When Commandant asks Red if she is familiar with steganography, there’s a beat where it seems the jig is up, because this is what she’s been exchanging with Blue all along: messages not merely encoded, but embodied in a bit of the world. Even if we, the readers, are reading the novella electronically, or listening to it in our earbuds, the way that the text constantly grounds itself, roots itself in physical metaphors—the letters themselves, and the imagery Red and Blue use to process their feelings and each other—reminds us of bodies. Concrete, and flesh. Garden and especially Agency could too easily be rarefied, hypothetical, intangible, and we read this in an era where physical correspondence is rare. The fusing of medium and message, the materiality of their correspondence, gives touch and weight to what would otherwise be bodiless.
To be clear, even beyond this imputed Romanticism, there is a love of beautiful language throughout the book. Red’s descriptions sometimes evokes cyberpunk’s rhythm and snark and disdain for “the meat”: “Gyroscopes whir in her gut, lenses click beneath the camouflage jelly of those pure black eyes.” Garden makes poetry of sheer etymology—“You root in the air, my epiphyte”—and, speaking of poetry, Blue observes “what’s supple, whipping, soft, and fresh grows hard, grows armor.”
Letters later, Red remarks: “How I love to have no armor here.”
“Poetic” and “lyric” are used, perhaps, too readily by reviewers, but they’re accurate in this case, and that aspect further anchors both the realism of the format and the constant movement from ethereal to embodied: these letters sound like things spoken aloud, by speakers who care about the way they sound. That’s especially important in a romance where the lovers (almost) never meet—the physicality of the other is invoked only through words. Poetic language moves our attention from signs on the page to teeth and tongue, lips and throat. And for our post-human protagonists, spending lifetimes apart, their words become the locus of desire in a way that bodies cannot. “I make metaphors to approach the enormous fact of you on slant,” says Red. Says Blue, “The snow’s gone and everything is warming, as if the sun were knuckling into the earth with both hands and kneading it into release.”
* * *
I have gained,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat.Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
I may be stuffing another straw man, but: a sentiment I’ve sometimes heard, sometimes fallen for, is the idea that longer works, novels at least, series even, are necessary for character development. A lot of SF stories are essentially Bildungsroman, in the mode of a passage to adulthood, or develop characters by throwing them up against external challenges. In either case, the development is essentially additive, quantitative, stacking up events in the present timeline and filling in their backstory. El-Mohtar & Gladstone take a very different tack here: character is informed, not by detail, but by vividness, by feeling.
One might complain, of The Time War: what do we really know about Red, about Blue? A few chance details, mere suggestions of complexity. Some of Red’s favorite foods; a time she stayed up late and sought out loneliness. A book Blue recommends; watching the clouds with the Khan; once when she was little she got sick. Then hungry.
One could say: we don’t really get to know them. It’s a romance, yet they never knowingly even see each other. Once, across a battlefield. As though personhood were something accreted of details, of episodes, or not at all.
What biography, however exhaustive, can seize us like the eyes of a stranger, like a voice calling out to us? The best one can say of a fictional person, no matter how strange their setting, is: I saw you. I heard you. As Le Guin reminds us in another chromatic character meditation, there is room in the spaceship for Mrs. Brown.
Red and Blue work as characters because of the intensity with which they listen to each other, the intensity with which they speak. The tone and timbre of the letters—from teasing and snarky to thoughtful, to longing, to confessional—is the arc of the story, and it’s fueled, unmistakably, by two people talking to each other. Compared to that reality, what does it matter what we do or don’t know about their life histories, their appearances?
It’s cheating a bit, but having heard Gladstone and El-Mohtar read a few letters freights the novella with an undeniable sense of reality for me. What we need to buy in, the disbelief we need to suspend, is not the mechanics of time travel, or an atlas of Blue’s “viney hivey elfworld” and Red’s “techy mechy dystopia”, but only—only!—Red and Blue’s reality as people to each other. Two voices, two listeners. Hearing Max and Amal—or the excellent audiobook narrators, Cynthia Farrell and Emily Woo Zeller—infuses the work with all the reality it needs.
It helps immensely that the novella doesn’t abuse the form. Too often, ostensibly epistolary fiction uses letters and journals, but wants to work as descriptively and linearly as a screenplay, injecting a deeply inauthentic note into the frame. These letters read like letters and, as much it reads like poets who care about their sound, it reads more like two people talking to each other.
And they have to find each other through their words alone. Well, words and lava, tea leaves, sumac seeds.
We’re in the same position, as we always are, as readers: what we can know of someone we can only find in words, words that come to us as images, metaphor, allusion, story. Red describes herself, in one of the finest phrases ever committed to print, as “apophenic as a haruspex,” wondering what in the world around her is a message from Blue, what it means.
What we have here are patterns. What we have here are guts.
“I pour you into things,” says Red to Blue. Says Blue to Red: “Now it’s as if the whole world sings to me in petals, feathers, pebbles, blood.” They find code-words and nick-names for each other, and these turn about and reinvest the world. Even their thoughts might be observed, by Agency, by Garden, reason enough to hide them—but it feels deeper, more natural than that: the lover’s instinct to guard even the thought of the beloved, something too fragile, or perhaps too fierce, for easy handling. So they charge the very world with their grandeur.
* * *
I got to drink mint and rose-hip tea with friends while discussing The Time War; there’s a scar on my knuckle from harvesting sumac I can lay at its door. There are certain books you just have to shout about for a while before critical thought can congeal, and this is one of them. One of the only observations that cut through the ringing in my ears, in those early conversations, was just that a few people didn’t like it. Or, stranger still, thought it was “okay”.
The straw man of “plainly written sci-fi, and the fans who love it” is not even a bad thing. To expand the lexicon of the imagination might be most easily done, ironically, with simple prose. And, as almost any writer will tell you, “simple” is about as far as one can get from “easy”. You don’t get This Is How You Lose The Time War without hundreds of works about time travel, spies, robots, magic—many of them without clever allusions and gripping turns of phrase. And without that mental storehouse—the ability to quickly and non-disruptively sketch in “multiverse” or “cyborg”—reading this would be a chore, the literally fantastic overwhelming its real qualities.
I don’t know what’s more dismaying to consider: that without a healthy SF syllabus under one’s belt, The Time War won’t work, or that, on too steady of such a diet, it’s a bit too weird, a bit too arty.
Fortunately, it needs no defending. A book, any kind of art, works not because it creates, but because it finds—finds readers, finds something in them that responds. This Is How You Lose The Time War is, like the figure that haunts its frame story, a seeker, inviting those of us who can to take these words into ourselves, to find Red and Blue there. The novella is dedicated to “You. Yes, you.”
Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.
This review was commissioned by editor Sabrina Mittermeier on September 14, 2020 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no prior acquaintance. No review copy was arranged by ARB.