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No more dreaming like a girl, for a body in the garden July 21, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, novellas, reviews.
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It would have been easy to devour This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s collaborative epistolary time travel romance novella, but something about its format, and its authors’ obvious enjoyment of the tactile, private pleasure of a correspondence through physical letters, encouraged a slower speed to savour their story. This exquisite work — told in letters between two rival, time-travelling agents as they manipulate the streams of history to the perceived advantage of their respective sides — is a marvel and a delight. The story is at once playful and tragic, with both authors revelling in wordplay and allusions, and the extremes of emotion engendered by their characters’ poignant situation.

Cover - This is How You Lose the Time War

Time travel stories are difficult to pull off well: there’s an inherent inequality between traveller and those who wait, and to whom the traveller returns. A time traveller venturing into the past can often come across as unbearably superior, revelling in their private knowledge of present-day science, technology, and social norms while withholding this knowledge for personal gain. A time traveller from the past to our present can play into unfortunate stereotypes and tropes. This is How You Lose the Time War sidesteps all these issues firstly by making both Red and Blue, its letter-writing antagonist-lovers, time travellers, rather than one journeying and returning while the other waits, and secondly by conveying the achievements and experiences of the past with a sense of genuine respect and wonder. It helps, too, that El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s wide-ranging journeys across space and time present us with our own world’s history — but slightly slantwise, with subtle tweaks and changes, and sharp divergences from the expected path, offering endless possible outcomes.

As someone who has long been a fan of both authors’ individual works, I was greatly anticipating this joint effort, although curious about how their two very distinctive voices would work together. Here the format really is a strength — to me (familiar with both Gladstone’s and El-Mohtar’s writing) it was clear which author was responsible for which component, but it felt very much like a free-flowing, coherent conversation, or a song in which two voices joined harmoniously. The novella length gives the story exactly enough space in which to unfold in all its vivid tragedy, its two characters spilling out their love, and pain, and fierce, sensual engagement with the world, in letters, scattered across space and time for each other to find. As spies, their lives, work, and even bodies are not quite their own — belonging instead to their respective causes — and so the intensity of their letters stands in contrast, a space in which their thoughts, words, feelings and dreams belong to them alone.

The authors have spoken in interviews and other promotion of the book of their own friendship, sustained and enriched over the years by a long, correspondence in physical letters. They talked of their appreciation both for the tactility of pen, paper, and other stationery, and for the privacy and slowness of such an exchange. In an environment where the community of SFF authors is increasingly global, the medium that enables this global community and exchange of ideas can be a bit of a double-edged sword: the price for easy communication with other authors and readers on the other side of the world seems to be that all ideas and conversations must be uttered at high speed, in public. The authors’ decision to correspond by letter, therefore, has the effect of carving out a space where some of their ideas, their thoughts, and their friendship can be expressed, but not offered up for public consumption. The novella that has emerged as a result of this friendship — and its analogue conversations and exchange of ideas — is a love letter, told in love letters, to the notion of the letter itself.