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Book Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 09:00
Book cover: Time War

Sometimes I stumble into reading a book that isn’t in my usual target zone at all. I’ve read some short fiction by El-Mohtar that I rather enjoyed, but “epistolary time-travel secret agent romance” isn’t something that would necessarily pique my interest until you insert the word “lesbian” into that phrase. Reading the book set me ruminating on questions of what even is gender in a post-human society, but that’s a different discussion.

I love books that make you reconstruct the setting, premises, and backstory from breadcrumbs dropped along the way, and this book goes all in on that technique. There are two sides (at least), with two worldviews (perhaps), and the same goal: to alter branching possible pasts in order to create the future in which they “win” the ability to assert their paradigm over reality. The two are supposedly differentiated by method--perhaps by philosophy--but that’s hard to see clearly in the midst of the casual death and destruction their agents leave in their wake. (In fact, it was sometimes difficult to differentiate the two characters even by voice.)

That casual death and destruction is no worse than the ordinary death and destruction of unaltered history (if there is such a thing), but initially I found it impossible to sympathize with the protagonists because of their indifference to the lives they were deliberately meddling with. That remained a theme for me throughout the story: we’re enticed to fall in love with these two opposing agents as they fall in love with each other, but it was hard for me to see them as other than monsters, playing at intellectual games out of boredom and loneliness as they criss-crossed time in their seemingly ageless existence.

And yet, I really enjoyed reading this book. I loved the challenge of visualizing the underlying conceptual structure. I loved deciphering the puzzle of how it would all end. The reader is given enough clues to get a sense that the puzzle is there, but not enough realistic detail to be able to work it out in advance--which is a good thing because doing so would have bogged down an otherwise fast-moving story. I loved that sense of just barely holding a slippery tangle of images in my mind long enough to feel that it stuck the landing.

It wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. And it wasn’t as mind-blowing as the social media buzz made it out to be. But it was a fascinating read.

* * *

Now on to the non-review philosophical discussion.

As I said in the review, the aspect of the book that tipped me over into buying (and then actually reading) Time War was the word “lesbian” in the elevator pitch. Note that this word is not in the official book summary. In fact, there are no gender signifiers at all in the official book summary. Once again, the publisher is relying on the whisper network to draw in those readers looking for queer stories while not committing to the book's queerness in the official publicity materials. That whisper network took up the flag with enthusiasm, promoting the book very clearly as a lesbian romance. (Almost with too much enthusiasm--I feel that Time War was hyped far more on the basis of its likeable and popular authors than on the book's actual content.)

And yet...I came out of the book asking myself what work the word "lesbian" was performing in describing the story concept. To have a lesbian romance, in the usual understanding of the phrase, one must have women.

Here you have two far-future cultures that are overtly post-human. It is implied that the protagonists were generated and raised extra-biologically. It’s clearly stated that they routinely modify their bodies not simply outside the limits of the human form, but perhaps outside the limits of biological plausibility. And having been enticed to read the book by calling it a lesbian romance, I’m left wondering “what even is gender in this context?”

What does it mean to be female or male or other within these cultures such that it is meaningful to apply categories of sexual orientation? Even if one chose to stick to outmoded biological definitions of gender (which I don’t), what does it mean to categorize entities with these properties as women? And if one comes at gender from a performative angle, where is the in-story evidence for what it is about their gender performance that places them in the category of women? If gender is a cultural construct, what does being a woman mean within the cultures of the Garden and the Agency? If gender is an expression of selfhood, how do these characters conceuptualize themselves such that this is how they understand their identities? 

I don’t mean these questions to imply gender essentialism of any type. But I came out the other end of the book feeling like we only knew the two protagonists were women (and thus that their romance could be classified as lesbian) because we had been told so by authorial fiat. Because the authors chose to use feminine pronouns for the characters. And not because we were given any sense of what that identity means to the characters within the context of their lives.

It would have been a fascinating experiment to publish multiple versions of the text with a variety of arbitrary pronoun assignments and see how readers’ perceptions of the story changed. Of course, any change in perception would be entirely about how the readers understand gender, rather than how the characters do. Which is what would make it fascinating. Because I read the story through the framework of how I understand gender (which, I will confess, is often a confused jumble) and came out of it feeling that character gender was irrelevant to the story. But if gender is irrelevant, than in what sense is the protagonists' relationship "lesbian"? Except, again, by authorial fiat?

These are genuine questions for me, not some sort of accusation or challenge. All too often, science fiction stories that appear to challenge gender paradigms do so by reacting against the current status quo, rather than by envisioning something truly revolutionary. Time War feels to me like it takes a genuinely revolutionary approach to post-human gender, but in doing so feels like it makes the very assignment/assumption of character gender irrelevant.

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