Letters are many things in Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War. Taunts between foes. Invitations to friendship. Missives of love.
They are also, at various points, tree rings, magma, and bubbles. (Seal guts are involved at one point too.)
This epistolary novella begins as a contest between two time travelers, the preeminent members of competing organizations bent on shaping the multiverse to fit their respective visions. Red works for the Agency, a technologically advanced version of humanity that’s implanted her with weapons and armor and pseudo-skin that can change form as required. Blue works for Garden, an organic hivemind whose members have evolved natural corollaries to these tools of destruction and deception. When deployed against each other, Red and Blue are “equal and opposite reaction[s],” as Blue terms them at one point, “a microcosm … of the war as a whole.”
Their struggle is the next thing to endless. Both are essentially immortal, capable of playing the longest of long games in one “strand” (i.e., potential timeline) after another. They might live out an entire life advising a variation of Genghis Khan, for example, and then skip to a resulting future to alter the outcome of a space battle, before circling back to a connecting past to ensure that the wind in an underground labyrinth “whistles over the right fluted bones,” so that “one pilgrim will hear the cry as an omen that will drive him to renounce all worldly goods and retreat to build a hermitage on a distant mountain slope, so that hermitage will exist in two hundred years to shelter a woman fleeing with child in a storm, and so it goes.” Sometimes these actions seem noble, like immunizing Native Americans centuries before contact with Europeans. But in other missions Red and Blue massacre millions.
And it wears. Early in the time war, it was probably easy for these adversaries to shrug off the psychic toll levied by their work—why bother with morality when there are multitudes, when London has so many incarnations they’re labeled with numbers and letters? Yet after eons of plotting and maneuvering and killing, the war goes on, and Red and Blue have little to show for their service.
Except their rivalry.
One-upping each other becomes a new challenge. Not just in the field—although they do plenty of showing off there too (subtle and otherwise). But after Blue rubs in a victory by sending Red a letter that can only be read by burning it, Red responds with a message that can only be read by boiling. From there, they concoct increasingly elaborate ways to continue their correspondence. In the process, their relationship changes, morphing from competition to curiosity to … something more.
It’s a fascinating tale.
The prose borders on poetry—mostly to the good, although I occasionally had trouble following the action. And I’m not sure all the time travel mechanics add up. (If Red and Blue can pinpoint their communications to the exact time and place the other will receive them, how have their parent organizations not figured out when and where to assassinate each other’s agents?) But I loved the ways El-Mohtar and Gladstone play with the concept of letters. “There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there?” muses Red at one point—words you can reread to take you back to a specific moment, no matter how long it’s been since you first read them.
The paper can vary. Same with the ink. But the transportive quality of letters endures. I only wish we wrote more of them in our current “strand.”
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