I’ve found that when it comes to science fiction, I have a soft spot for time travel. Although the concept is, of course, fundamentally hokey, I enjoy a clever take on it that subverts your expectations about what the causes or consequences of it could be. These three novels, all released in the last two years, achieve that with varying levels of success — but still have trouble tying up every loose end, which really is the duty undertaken by a novelist undertaking an intricately plotted mind-bender.
I read them in the order listed, and of the three, I think The Gone World is the best of them, with Recursion a close second, and The Light Brigade trailing rather far behind them. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but part of the trouble of each is its ending, so I must speak in general terms about that.
The Gone World (doomed to forever be confused with Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World) follows a law enforcement officer whose jurisdiction, it soon comes out, is cases relating to a secretive branch of the Navy that operates in what amounts to alternate timelines and deep space. The mechanism of doing so is, thankfully, almost completely waved away, since there is no plausible explanation. But plausible consequences remain, such as accelerated aging due to spending time in other timelines and returning where you started in this one.
The plot has the protagonist tugging the threads on a brutal murder that soon proves to be part of something much more dire and complicated — just the type of slow reveal I like. And Sweterlitsch is not afraid to peel back layer after layer, linking back to previous revelations or characters thought dead or irrelevant, building a complex mystery spanning many years and indeed worlds.
This was a great read for the most part, but some bits seemed needless or half-baked. The romance seemed unnecessary, for one thing, and not particularly realistic. And at one point the protagonist spends perhaps six months in an alternative timeline slowly getting to know someone she thinks may have good information. This seemed so unlikely and wasteful that it took me right out of the story.
Ultimately things do come to a head in a fairly satisfying way, though there is a rushed quality to the ending, as if the last 10 percent of the book were meant to be twice as long and an editor said “wrap it up.” That makes it less comprehensible at the very moment it needs to be completely clear. But read slowly and check with the pinboard of locations and characters you’ll have developed by this time and you’ll be fine.
Recursion is by Blake Crouch, against whom I am still nursing a grudge for writing a book that’s incredibly similar to a story I had already begun. Dark Matter started strong and followed through with the concept, only to sort of spin out of control at the end, resolved in an unconvincing way. So it is with Recursion, though I strongly prefer it over the previous book.
I hesitate to even go into details of the plot in Recursion, because a large part of the fun is being constantly surprised by the direction Crouch takes things. It won’t be a big surprise to anyone who’s read a blurb or review, however, that it involves time travel — though of a different sort than usual.
What sets Crouch apart is how far he’s willing to take a relatively simple but powerful mechanic, always staying one step ahead of the reader. You might think “wait, if she can do this, why doesn’t she just do that?” And unlike many other stories, she will, or someone else already has and you just don’t know it yet.
A consequence of this constant ratcheting up of the possibilities and consequences is that it becomes quite difficult to resolve the story. In Dark Matter as in Recursion the book is, at the last, unsatisfying in how it wraps things up, though that doesn’t negate the pleasure of reading it. It was a quick read for me and anyone who wants a thought-provoking, mind-bending romp should enjoy it.
The Light Brigade is a book that I wanted to like a lot, but ultimately only liked the idea of. The story takes place in a future dominated by corporations rather than countries, where war is waged by teleporting soldiers into battlefields and then out again. But the main character, when she is transported, arrives not at the intended battlefield but one much later or earlier in the war.
The implications of being unstuck in time in a military setting are tremendous, and once you get past the somewhat tedious boot-camp section (the book owes a lot to Starship Troopers), it’s hard not to wonder where this fascinating concept will be taken.
Unfortunately, the narrative fails to manage its multiple timelines well, and the result is a muddle. The protagonist is hard to get a grip on, having no real consistent qualities except for a smart mouth and loyalty to her friends in the service. Put in an incredible situation, she doesn’t seem to act at all when not deployed — why don’t they ever talk about this? Or if they do, why aren’t those conversations in the book? The characters, and the author, seem to tiptoe around what is probably the most important thing ever discovered. The threat of the higher-ups monitoring them is there, but even when it isn’t, the concept rarely gets more than a “that’s weird” or “I’ve heard rumors…”
One never really gets a handle on what’s happening, and I must say that when that’s the case I generally keep reading in hopes that it will all be made clear later. That isn’t the case with The Light Brigade, which sort of stumbles to the finish line after tying off or snipping about half the threads it spawned.
Part of the reason I like this type of book is that it’s a performance by the author of how well they can juggle the many ideas and implications of their plots and characters, complicated by extra timelines, revisions, knowing things before you should, and so on. They all threw a lot of balls in the air, and while The Gone World only lost one or two, Recursion lost most of them but only at the end, and The Light Brigade was dropping them continually. I admire the ambition in all three cases, but following through is where it counts and not everyone can pull it off.