But the gap between the quiet affection he felt and the deep adoration and love that should have been there stretched to an endless, impossible distance.
Science fiction needs to have heart to be good. I know it’s weirdly dictative on my part to say that, but I just cannot get immersed in the world unless it gives me something to connect my heart to. Mike Chen’s debut novel thus fulfils all my reader expectations. It explores a future where time travel is a reality and a job, and while at times we are a tad overloaded with exposition in the dialogue (Chen has to feed us the time travel rules and tidbits somehow), it doesn’t matter because he balances this with credible human relationships. Chen’s conceptualization of the future is thoughtful and sensible. Of course the first thing humans would do once we have the science and technology is figure out how to slow the progress of ageing. However, I am not too sure I buy into the erasure of fast food. It is hard to envision a future with no proper fried food, though this speaks more about my bias towards fried chicken rather than a critique of Chen’s world-building.
The novel revolves around Kin Stewart, a TCB (Temporal Corruption Bureau) agent who at the beginning finds himself displaced in a time period that is not his. A fight with a time mercenary has left him injured and stranded with no way to get back home unless help arrives. But help doesn’t arrive, not for 18 years, and the agent who returns for him finds a man happily settled, with a wife and daughter. While Kin is aware that he cannot continue to stay, there is much resistance in getting him back to where he belongs. His body might belong to a future where his wife and daughter do not exist, but his heart cannot bring himself to leave them.
However, leave them he must. There is a certain irony at play here, since as a TCB agent he is meant to preserve the cleanliness of the timeline, but his actions of setting down roots and creating a life in a time that is not his speaks to immense complication. This is something the reader would understand though, since the expectation of isolation and simply waiting it out doesn’t seem very practical. We need people; we need relationships; we need love.
“How easy it was for humans to fall back into their patterns, wherever or whenever they were. Except, apparently, being in a mad, passionate love. That part wasn’t quite as simple.”
Kin tries to settle back in a time that belongs to him, but he finds his mind pulled in two directions. There is the constant wondering of what happened to his wife and daughter, as well as the worry that he is not being fair to the people currently in his life. Interestingly enough, my mind felt a similar conflict while reading Chen’s book. I desired the pull of his novel, my mind constantly flickering through words and images that had sunk me in its depths. Yet I have to face the demands of everyday life. My mind needs to be in the now, but it wants to be where Kin is as he figures out his next move. Just when you think things for Kin have settled into a kind of status quo, Chen shakes you up again, and you know you will never be content until you push on till the end.
So push on I did. As I raced (a race against time if you will) towards the end of the book, I marvelled at the human capacity to travel great lengths for love. I tried to put myself in Kin’s shoes, wondering if I would risk my life to make contact, to sustain relationships I wasn’t allowed to. The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t think Kin himself knew until the moment he was faced with certain decisions. But leap he did. I thought I knew how the novel would end, and for once in my life, I am glad to be wrong. As you read this review, I hope you understand that I need to leave the details out. The novel progresses on the basis and momentum of revelations. The desire to know how things pan out pushes the reader forward, and me revealing too many details would ruin the novel for you. The conclusion here is a simple one: this is a must-read, be it here or now or whenever. Just don’t take too long – time flows forward, after all.