Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War

Pop culture at the moment has quite a lot of truck with the Friendly Enemies trope: that is, with pairs of antagonists who rely on each other to define their own existences; who keep each other on their toes in a world full of less interesting or too-different people; who are locked in conflicts they have no interest in or intention of ending. Think of Sherlock and Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock, the Doctor and the Master in Doctor Who, Sean and Michael in The Good Place. It’s A Thing (and very much A Thing that seems designed to preserve the status quo for long-running narratives rather than having anything to do with psychological realism or artistic goals).

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s novella This Is How You Lose the Time War is not that kind of text, and in fact it demonstrates the hollowness of the entire concept.

Its protagonists Red and Blue are, technically, enemies. They’re highly-skilled posthuman soldiers of two far-future factions: the Agency, a “techy-mechy dystopia”, and Garden, a “viny-hivey elfworld”. The Agency and Garden are engaged in the titular time war, a conflict that takes place on a theatre of millennia, across universes, as each faction nudges timelines to bring themselves into being. It’s the kind of war whose causes nobody can remember: it just grinds on and on in blood and death and murder.

Against this backdrop, the story focuses very closely on the illicit correspondence between Red and Blue, either of whom would be executed by their own side if their contact was discovered. At first it begins as taunting, as friendly enmity; but quite soon it develops into something more.

The text alternates between Red and Blue as they read and respond to each other’s letters,and in fact it was (apparently) written that way too: Gladstone wrote all of Red’s parts and El-Mohtar all of Blue’s, and although they followed a general plot outline the details of the letters were often a surprise for the recipient – that emotional response shaping the text. How interesting!

So the acts of reading and writing are supremely important here. The act of one’s words being read is described as “infiltration” (referring of course to the dangerous context in which Red and Blue are operating); letters are “structures not events”, “place[s] to live inside”. Towards the end of the novella, Red literally consumes Blue’s words and is literally changed by them (to the extent that we can understand any of this posthuman future as literal), allowing her to enter Garden undetected and physically change Blue too, in order to protect her from the Agency.

This essay in Strange Horizons is relevant here. Writing about queer cyborgs, Ben Berman Ghan posits that Red and Blue’s mutually-altering correspondence allows them to build a space of their own; a queer space apart from the dominant, binary paradigms of the Agency and Garden. It allows them to imagine something else. In the closing words of the text: “This is how we win.”

To return to the Friendly Enemies trope: This Is How You Lose the Time War reveals that it is based on, and perpetuates, precisely those binary paradigms. There’s a point in the novella where Red and Blue have to contemplate just such a relationship, admiring each other’s work while remaining forever in conflict; but it is an impossible state for them. They have been changed too much by each other. It’s important, I think, that the novella’s conflict is an actual war; so that it becomes obvious that to accept the status of Friendly Enemies is to entrench the status quo and continue a state of senseless violence in service to factions neither of them care much about. To accept the status of Friendly Enemies is to give up their agency (hah).

This Is How You Lose the Time War is, then, a story about the importance of reading and writing and genuine connection in resolving conflict, in escaping the self-perpetuating systems that keep us at each other’s throats. As such, it is interested in seeing an end to these pointless conflicts, not a perpetuation of bankrupt Friendly Enemy dynamics (although the authors are not averse to fighting the good fight – Red and Blue will have a lot to do to carve out a safe space for themselves amid the warring troops of the Agency and Garden, after all).

It does have to be said, however, that despite its romantic focus This Is How You Lose the Time War is pretty hard SF. Though the details and mechanics of the time war aren’t important to the narrative, I think the reader needs to have a lot of trust in the authors to recognise that – to realise that they don’t actually need to worry about understanding, literally, what exactly is happening at every single moment. That’s a skill SFF readers gain but not, I think, one that literary authors cultivate in their audiences: recognising that metaphors like this are about things passing our current scientific understanding, that they’re almost just there for flavour:

Garden goes to seed, blows us away, and we burrow into the braidedness of time and mesh with it. There is no scouring hedge to pass through, we are the hedge, entirely, rosebuds with thorns for petals. The only way to access us is to enter Garden so far down-thread that most of our own agents can’t manage it, find the umbilical taproot that links us to Garden, and then navigate it upthread like salmon in a stream.

If not understanding what this passage literally means worries you, then you’re probably not the right audience for this book. But if the writing style excites you, or if you’re happy to be flung into the deep end – go ahead and read This Is How You Lose the Time War. It feels important, right here, right now.

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