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Friday, July 10, 2009

Book Review: "Palimpsest" by Charles Stross

The new collection of short stories by Charles Stross, "Wireless" is full of good work; many of the stories will be familiar to his fans because they've been previously published. But the longest story of all, a novella titled "Palimpsest" hasn't been publicly available to readers before. It's primarily why I bought the book, and I'm very happy indeed that I did. Let me tell you why. The next section is a spoiler-free introduction to this review. The section after that, where I get into more detail, is full of spoilers: you have been warned.

Fair Warning Disclosure: I've met and drunk beer with Charlie Stross, and been a regular commenter on his blog over the last couple of years. It's likely though that I would never have met him if I hadn't been delighted by his writing first. This review is the result of a great story, not a friendship.

Intro - No Spoilers
"Palimpsest" is a time-travel story in the tradition of Poul Anderson's "Time Patrol", Fritz Leiber's "Change War", and Isaac Asimov's "The End of Eternity". And there are definite resonances with Robert Heinlein's "All you Zombies", David Gerrold's "The Man Who Folded Himself", and Chris Roberson's "Here, There, and Everywhere". I think it most closely resembles Anderson's stories, as I'll explain in detail with spoilers later. In fact, there's a reference to the "Time Patrol" series in one character's name. There are also several themes that were important in Anderson's stories here: the solitude and alienation of a temporal operative outside their own time, the moral dilemmas that result from being able to change history, and the deeper questions that need to be asked when you start wondering which history is the "real" one.

But this isn't an homage or a copy; Stross goes deeper here into these themes than Anderson did. He also spends more time and energy on the "how" of time travel, setting up a theory of physics that consistently supports the plot and the themes he's covering. Now I'm a geek when it comes to far-out theories of physics, and I'm fascinated by questions about the nature of time, and the possibility of time travel, so this is catnip for me; YMMV. But there are some twists and turns in the theory here that made me sit back and think about all the time travel stories I've read, and what their assumptions about the nature of time imply about the use and abuse of time travel. At that point, I think I've gone beyond a book review, so I'll save most of that thinking for a follow-up post, tentatively titled "On the Paraphysics of Time Travel".

In an afterward, Stross says,
"Palimpsest" really wanted to be a novel. It really, really wanted to be a novel. Maybe it will be, someday.
I agree that it should be, and hope one day that it will. There are characters and settings which deserve more description and development than they have.

Here be there Spoilers
"Palimpsest" covers about as much scope in space, time, and human actions as is possible. The story begins and ends in the second person, talking to the man who is the protagonist and point of view, Pierce. In between it follows Pierce's career from recruitment into the trans-temporal organization called "Stasis", through his 20-year training, and on into active duty. Stasis' mission is to preserve the existence of humanity, despite extinction events, and in the face of the eventual evolution of the sun into a red giant that will destroy Earth. Along the way it describes, in chapters reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker", several alternative histories of the Solar System (with some background on the rest of the universe). In the course of his training and work Pierce studies and helps change the course of civilizations, and helps save humanity from one of many extinctions. But in this story, that's all background; the prime mover of the plot is, ultimately, the question that Pierce must answer: who does he want to be, what history does he want for himself, the answer to which question turns out to be have a rather large bearing on the history of all humanity.

Time travel has a very SFnal problem: if you want an interesting story, you have to go beyond the science we know, and make up something. It's gotten more interesting since the 1970's with the discovery of implications in General Relativity that time travel into the past may be possible given certain extreme conditions, where before scientists were fairly certain that was impossible. There still aren't any time travel mechanisms that are known to be workable with physically feasible technology, and the ones that have been proposed are limited in range to the period of the existence of the time travel device, so writers have to either resort to some (large) amount of handwaving in describing how time travel works, or simply say, "trust me, it works, let's get to the story". Stross has chosen to describe a particular mechanism involving wormholes and singularities that isn't close to any current science, but that allows for the kinds of abilities and problems that Stasis has. It allows time travelers to change history without affecting themselves (the first task of a recruit is to kill his own grandfather before he has children), and for multiple changes to be made in a given event without the outcome of the changes to be known for certain from some viewpoints.

Stasis is similar to Anderson's "Time Patrol" in that it is a trans-temporal organization that has accepted responsibility for patrolling and controlling history. Like the Time Patrol, it is run by dimly-seen and poorly-understand people from some far future time; it has a clearly-stated mission, but the operations it runs are not always clearly related to that mission. Stasis, like the Patrol, recruits from all eras, sends its recruits to an Academy in a remote time, and then stations most agents in a time period around their own origins. And there are, as in the Time Patrol, senior agents whose job it is to watch over history and take action when necessary to correct even the actions of other Stasis agents. The differences arise because Anderson never went very deeply into the overall organization and goals of the Patrol, preferring to concentrate on the work of his protagonist Unattached Agent Manson Everard (whose name is referenced in "Palimpsest" by the name of the head of the Stasis Academy, Agent Manson; the fact that this is his only name, and the acts he and Stasis require of recruits and students, may also make it a reference to Charles Manson).

As always for Stross, it's not just about the hardware or action, it's about the people and how they interact on personal and political levels. Pierce has questions about how Stasis works, and what it does. Those questions get more urgent even before he finishes training, when he is sent to a primitive time on a supposedly routine cover for the extraction of another agent. Pierce is surprised to discover that he other agent is a prior instance of a former lover, an instructor at the Stasis Academy, who has not yet met him on her lifeline. Before the extraction can be completed, a multi-way firefight with advanced weapons kills Pierce several times despite frantic changes in the past of the battle, and eventually leaves him seriously injured. Are there factions in Stasis? Is there another trans-temporal organization? And why try to kill him, a lowly trainee?

The questions become more complicated when Pierce is interrogated by an agent of Stasis Internal Affairs. who looks exactly like Franz Kafka, author and paranoid. Is a future Pierce suspected of trying to assassinate himself? Kafka says he is not, but also says he will be talking to Pierce again.

Pierce' view of Stasis and his own part in it becomes more morally ambiguous, and his own history and future become more and more uncertain, as Pierce learns more of how time travel works, and participates in more and more operations. His adopted home in an advanced time, where he was a husband and father, and respected as a Stasis agent, is lost to him in the manifold potential and alternative histories, and there is some suggestion that Internal Affairs is holding the knowledge of how to find it again as a hostage for Pierce' good behavior. He learns that there are rogue agents, striking out to create empires in time, or to overthrow Stasis entirely. There may be factions within Stasis, battling over the tactics, and even the objectives, of the service. All or none, or some combination, of these may or may not exist, and may or may not be defeated by Internal Affairs, depending on when he currently is, and how the most recent temporal battles were resolved.

Stasis is the ultimate panopticon society, extended over all of humanity for all of history. That might be a good thing, because it allows all of human history and experience to be stored in the Final Library, an archive trillions of years in the future. But is the cost too high? Has Stasis, and in particular, Internal Affairs reduced human history to the limited stage of a single solar system, where it plays out a repetitive cycle of extinction, followed by reseeding of primitive tribes which evolve into advanced societies and are again made extinct? Is there a better way that involves humanity expanding into the Universe, making itself immortal by making sure no extinction can be widespread enough to kill it completely?

Stross has often written warnings about the panopticon society we in the West are building now; here he shows how the ultimate panopticon, based on a timid need for security in the face of the potential threats of the Universe we live in, could control humanity for its entire future. But, given the nature of time and time travel he uses here, the outcome is never certain until no one's left to go back and try to change it, and a time traveler can choose to completely revise their own life in the light of later discoveries. Pierce must finally make a decision about what he is willing to do, and how he wants the world to work, and is allowed by the technology he has available to change the past to support that decision. We know that he might succeed, although it is never certain that he will, even when we see him return to free himself of his past decisions. Accepting that humans must have free will, and accepting the responsibility for using that will, as Pierce does, means the outcome cannot be determined beforehand.

In the end, "Palimpsest" delivers a lot of sensawunda, as it jumps around in alternative time, showing some possible histories of the Earth and humanity. It also delivers several interesting characters. Foremost is Pierce, whom we watch grow over several decades from a teenage recruit to a veteran of life inside Stasis as well as in domestic life. His wife and his lover in Stasis are not as fully developed, and this is one limitation of the story that could be improved by expansion to novel length. I'd like to see Kafka developed a little as a character as well; at present he's an Ominous Presence rather than a person.

It would also be helpful to see more of Stasis' operations, to show in more detail how they use the ability to change the past on the fly. As it is, I think I see what's going on, but there still is a bit of handwaving going on (for instance in the battle where Pierce is killed several times), and I think the inter-time tactics should be clearer, since the climax of the story, when Pierce finds out who the rebel faction within Stasis is, depends on it.

But first and foremost, I want more of this story to read. If time travel stories interest you, I think you'll feel the same way.


Strannik said...


I kid, I kid, Thanks for the review. That pushed Wireless to the top of the acquisition pile.

John Evo said...

Thanks for doing this review. I just finished reading it and needed either someone to talk to about it or someone who had given some detailed thought to it. This was helpful.

Time travel always sends my head spinning and quite often annoys the hell out of me. There were points during this story where I felt the old feelings, but overall I found it more mind expanding than mind confusing.

The entire story had a certain Kafkaesque feel to it - which makes me grin.