Time Salvager (Wesley Chu)

Hot on the heels of his first trilogy of novels – Tao, Taiwanese writer Wesley Chu comes with his second trilogy of books – Time, with the first novel in the series, Time Salvager, published by Tor Books, paving the way for the new franchise. And franchise it’s going to be, as no sooner had the ink dried on the last page of the book, than the novel was optioned to Paramount Studios for a blockbuster treatment, with the well known American filmmaker Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers) attached to direct the big screen adaptation of Chu’s book.

Time Salvager is set in a dystopian future of the 26th century when Earth is a toxic, sparsely-populated wasteland with oceans and seas affected by seemingly unstoppable microbial plague, and when the technologically advanced humanity, ruled by all-powerful mega-corporations, such as Valta, that own mining rights to whole moons of the gas giants, has spread into the outer solar system, with the ailing Earth affected by the aforesaid environmental disaster left as one of the least desirable places to live.

Even though some technologies, such as space travel, advanced enormously in the intervening years, the human civilization, having gone through several devastating global wars, lost some vital knowledge, particularly that relating to energy generation, and now entered the era of slow but steady decline.

With failing technology only a few are able to maintain and nobody to improve, the powers that be, and those tasked with delaying humanity’s descent, come to believe that the only thing that can turn the fortunes of mankind and pull back the society from the brink of disintegration is the newly discovered time travel, strictly controlled by ChronoCom – agency that regulates, and has sole monopoly on, travelling to the past.

ChronoCom employs chronmen – men and women recruited because of their unique psychological makeup for the most glamorous, but also most dangerous, job in the universe: to undertake missions to the past with the goal to recover the much sought-after sources of energy, lost technology and other valuable resources as well as priceless art treasures. In other words, ChronoCom basically oversees the task of cannibalising the past in order to prop up the ailing and technologically-challenged present.

But there is a catch: each of these expeditions to the past, a.k.a. ‘salvages’, creates a ‘ripple’ in the space-time continuum – and the bigger the ripple, the higher the chance that the whole time-stream is altered, with unforeseen, but likely highly undesirable, consequences for the present. Hence the ‘Time Laws’ a set of rules laid down by the ‘Mother of Time’ Grace Priestly, genius pioneer of time-travel science and High Scion of the Technology Isolationists faction. The Time Laws stipulate that the time salvages be carried out only from carefully selected locations and points in time, where the salvaged objects face the inevitable, historically verifiable, destruction anyway.

ChronoCom, the agency that regulates time travel, oversees
the task of cannibalising the past
in order to prop up the ailing and technologically challenged present

Inherently, such points in space and time are extremely dangerous places – primarily locations of major natural calamities, industrial disasters and war conflicts, often accompanied by a high death toll. Beyond the requisitioned salvage, a chronman is strictly forbidden from interfering in the past that ‘is already written’ in any way, specifically from saving the victims of the above mentioned disasters, as that would inevitably alter the timeline, with unpredictable consequences for the present. For all the practical purposes, ‘these people are already dead’, as every chronman keeps repeating themselves, although the constant exposure to such traumatic events eventually takes its toll on their psyche – which is the reason that most of the chronmen don’t survive beyond the first 10 years of service – either dying on the job or taking their own life.

The storyline of Time Salvager centres on one of these chronmen, James Griffin-Mars and his ‘monitor’ Smitt, and follows James, assisted by his handler, on his assorted missions that take him, amongst other places in space and time, on board of the spaceship High Marker – flagship of Technology Isolationists, where he meets 93-year-old Grace Priestly, legendary ‘Mother of Time’; to the ancient China during the Han dynasty where he is sent to capture a rogue chronman who is using future technology to present himself as a great martial arts master; and to Königsberg Castle in Prussia , where he is tasked with salvaging the famed Amber Chamber, before it disappeared in the smoke of war after the bombing of the castle by the Royal Air Force warplanes during the Second World War, when the entire castle burnt to the ground.

We learn that the pair have to work-off the remaining 5 years of their service contract to buy themselves the well-deserved retirement on Jupiter’s moon Europa (which is something of a paradise in this bleak, dystopian world). However, James who struggles with his bad conscience and heavy booze addiction (which his team mate Smitt tries to, rather futilely, rein in), is only well aware that he is reaching his breaking point and that his retirement at the end of those last five years is so distant that he will, in all likelihood, nosedive into the Jupiter's ‘eye’ (the traditional way to go for a suicidal chronman) before he will reach it.

Then, as by a stroke of good fortune, ChronoCom offers James a lucrative salvage contract that, if successfully completed, would cut whole 4 years from his, and Smitt’s, remaining service. The job involves the retrieval of three items of unknown technology from the infamous Nutris Platform disaster in the Arctic Circle in the year 2097. That year itself, often referred to as the ‘Cliffside of Humanity’, was significant, as it was the last year of the blessed era known as the ‘Final Golden Age’ – the brief period of innovation, international cooperation and world-wide peace, before the present era of ‘Great Decay’, marked by environmental catastrophes, widespread famine, and devastating wars, began.

Despite all the clichés, Chu delivers a gripping page turner with a solid and rich narrative, featuring several interesting, three-dimensional characters

The salvage has an added difficulty – the equipment has to be retrieved from three different locations on the platform, at least one of which is sited within a high-security area, and the whole job must be wrapped-up within a narrow, 4-hour window, between the time when the explosion was first reported and the moment when the platform sinks to the bottom of the ocean. James, conscious of the complications posed by the time restriction, arrives at the installation a couple of days earlier, hacks into the platform’s server, creates himself a new identity as a security guard, and proceeds to gather some intelligence in preparation for the salvage. Having completed his ‘homework’ and satisfied with the results, James decides to do something that is completely out of his character: he spends some quality time, and gets romantically involved, with Elise Kim, a biologist whom he happens upon while surveying the platform.

When the day of the disaster comes, James, being an experienced Tier-1 chronman, handles the tricky assignment with relative ease and quickly retrieves the first two pieces of equipment. But then all goes south, when he, while salvaging the third and the last piece of equipment, gets trapped in the same room as Elise, just as the whole platform starts to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Haunted by the ghosts of the countless people he has left to die in the past, and the guilt he feels about being absent the day his little sister has gone missing in a turmoil that was their childhood, James finally breaks down and does something unthinkable, something that goes against all the years of training at ChronoCom and his common sense – unable to leave Elise to her certain (although historically correct) death either by drowning, or, worse still, by radioactive poisoning, he breaks the First and the most important Time Law of them all: he brings Elise back to the future with him, saving her life, but in the process instantaneously transforming himself from a privileged elitist to a traitor, outcast and fugitive.

For better or for worse, James finally achieves what he was longing for all along: at last, he is free from the shackles of his contract. But being free comes at a price, as it means to be consigned to the inhospitable and dangerous wasteland of Earth. Luckily, the two fugitives soon find refuge with the Elfreth tribe - a group of semi-savage nomadic people who live within the ruins of once great cities, and, in order to beat the poisonous smog hanging above the ground and blocking all the sunlight, grow their greens on the rooftops of derelict skyscrapers. The simple but honest life the Elfreth lead inspires Elise to try and find a cure for the fatally ill oceans. Single-handedly and equipped with scrounged, sub-standard equipment, the scientist from the past embarks on this gargantuan undertaking that gives the tribe reason to look to the future with hope, while James, secretly tipped off by the insider information from his old teammate Smitt, jumps to-and-fro through time in search of equipment for Elise’s laboratory and supplies for the Elfreth, always staying a step ahead of ChronoCom’s Levin Javier-Oberon, High Auditor of Earth, and Valta’s Securitate Kuo, both hell-bent on bringing James to justice, even though for completely different reasons: Levin for violating the Time Laws and Kuo for interfering in Valta corporation’s nefarious plans.

James, Smitt and Levin, although standing on the opposite sides of the conflict, all wrestle with similar, increasingly complex ethical dilemmas, that make them question where their allegiances lie, and in the process come to realise that the ostensibly sovereign ChronoCom is in fact merely an obedient puppet in the hands of all-powerful inter-planetary mega-conglomerates, namely the corrupt Valta corporation.

Although the Time Salvager doesn’t bring anything new, merely recycling the ages-old time-travelling story, and despite all the clichés that are generously peppered throughout the book, Chu knows his trade well, delivering a solid narrative with some interesting, three-dimensional characters, making the novel a gripping page turner. Highly recommended.

The second book of the trilogy, Time Siege, was published by Tor Books in July 2016.