BRIEF SYNOPSIS:A Time traveler’s crisis of conscience leads to a manhunt in a dark and twisted future.
PROS: Excellent action beats, well drawn protagonist; well drawn future society and world; a gorgeous looking book with Richard Anderson cover art and beautiful design.
CONS: The emphasis on the thriller elements might disappoint people looking for more time travel elements; not all secondary characters come off equally well.
BOTTOM LINE: Time Salvager is action packed, humorous, well paced and relentlessly entertaining.
In a crapsack future world, where time travel is used to mine the past to sustain the present, a time travelers crisis of conscience sets him, and the world on an unexpected course in Wesley Chu’s Time Salvager.
Time travel stories are among the earliest stories I read in my long life of reading science fiction. As good as novels and stories where there is a one way trip through time, the real joy for me, in time travel stories, is where time travel is a continually used tool to visit various places and times in the past. Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, the novels of Connie Willis and Kage Baker, many stories by Robert Silverberg, the roleplaying games Continuum and GURPS: Time Travel. The mixing of times and places, letting people who never should meet across the gulfs of time, encounter each other, to dramatic result.
James Griffin-Mars is a chronman, one of the eponymous time salvagers. In the early 26th century, the good news is that Man has spread throughout the solar system. The bad news is that the primary reason for this is that most of Earth is uninhabitable, devastated by climate change, war, and ecological devastation. Humanity is in a resource bottleneck without the resources of its homeworld, and without quite enough technology to make the best of the off-world experience. Worse. what resources there are go to the mega corporations that rule this less than stellar future, and even they are suffering diminished expectations and livelihood. Thus, Chronocom does not study the past, learn about history, explore the lore of humanity’s evolution as most time travel agencies seem to do. They can’t afford to do so.
Instead, in the world of Chu’s Time Salvager, Chronocom, at the behest of the megacorporate backers that fund it, go back in time to obtain things on their behalf. The Laws of Time as enforced by Chronocom do not allow for major changes to history, and so, in the tradition of the movie Millennium, Chronocom’s goes to the sites of disaster and destruction to steal things like lost pieces of art and history for a wealthy patron, but more commonly it obtains things like power reactors and other technology that humanity can no longer manufacture and keep in good repair. It’s an audacious and well executed move on the author’s part, to make time travel a necessary chore and rearguard action to prop up portions of humanity in a less than hospitable future. There is a real sense of humanity’s future crumbling before it, even as they desperately try to mine the past to keep it a going concern.
We get a thorough tour of that very future since our protagonist breaks the Time Laws and brings someone from the past into the future.These sequences of James on the run with his charge, Elise, and the hunt to find him are the both the strength and the weakness of the novel.
At the beginning, James is burned out and broken, a hazard of so much time travel, but he grows and develops as a person in the course of the novel, even as he plays a cat and mouse game with his enemies. It’s an excellent character arc for James, and his journey is one of the best things about novel. What this means, though, is that the novel is significantly less focused on time travel than one might suspect, since often the thriller elements overshadow the time travel elements.
The secondary characters are a mixed bag. For all that Elise is meant to be the right hand to James’ left in the novel, I was felt rather dissatisfied with her depiction as a character. I never got a really good handle on her, and at points I felt like she was not all that she could have or should have been. I had a much more positive reaction to Grace Priestly, the creator of time travel, whom James also encounters. To me she constantly walked the line of engaging interest and threatening to overwhelm James and the rest of the narrative.
In spite of a few flaws, Time Salvager is nothing but entertaining, well paced, exciting, and definitely a page turner. If anything, the author has taken his experience with the Tao series, and honed and focused his strengths for this newest series. I can see why the book has been optioned for a movie; the thriller chassis of the novel is eminently suitable for cinema.