Everyone is alive, somewhere in time.
There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? Do I address empty air? You could leave me for five years, you could return never — and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.
This Is How You Lose the Time War, published July 2019, is an English language science fiction epistolary novel by two authors working in collaboration: the Canadian poet and speculative fiction author, and Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award winner, Amal el-Mohtar, and the American fantasy author Max Gladstone, author of the Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence.
It won the Best Shorter Fiction Award, the Nebula Award for Best Novella of 2019, and the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella. It was also shortlisted for the 2020 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Ray Bradbury Prize, the Kitschies Red Tentacle Award, the Kitschies Inky Tentacle award for its cover art by Greg Stadnyk, and the Brave New Words Award.
I have known you since before I knew you.
This Is How You Lose the Time War follows the rivalry-turned-romance of two time traveling spies from opposite transhuman utopian futures. The story is comprised of the letters they send to each other through unconventional means, alternating with brief third person narration depicting their movements and schemes. The characters' relationship takes place non-chronologically with respect to the objective timeline(s) of the multiverse they inhabit, but it is depicted pseudo-chronologically with respect to the characters' own points of view, alternating between the two perspectives of the agents "Red," who hails from a post-singularity technological quasi-hivemind, and "Blue," whose side of the Time War is a vast Eden-like biological symbiosis network between all organisms, called the Garden.
These characters are depicted as women, or something near enough to being women that they refer to each other with feminine pronouns, though at several points the story explicates that their physical bodies and apparent genders are completely mutable, voluntary things. Consequently, this novel certainly qualifies as Queer Literature, whether the reader chooses to interpret the queer identities represented here as lesbian, bisexual, genderfluid, or any other identity plausibly enabled by the protagonists' mutable nature.
The prose in which these letters are written is graceful and lavish, in a way that feels, not "purple," not pointlessly ornamental, but like the stated intent of the characters in writing it: an attempt to create a real sense of presence for each other, through their love letters, because of the impossibility of being together without bringing about each other's destruction at the hands of those whose Time War they are waging.
If there is one other literary work to which I would attribute a certain indirect resemblance, which might even be considered an allusion or vague homage, it is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Both are timeline-hopping, world-saving romances between ageless rivals. In both novels, the rivals have convergent humanistic ideologies, at odds with their respective sides of a cosmic war. Both narratives are explicitly considered queer literature and intended to be accessible to any and all queer identities, according to their authors and indicated through their protagonists' love stories and mutable gender identities. Both have a wry and ticklish sense of humour which sometimes eclipses, and sometimes is eclipsed by, absolutely monumental pathos - though on this later point, Good Omens definitely leans into humour more, and Time War leans far more toward pathos. If you thought, while reading Good Omens, "I wish Crowley and Aziraphale had spent more time being enemies, before they were friends and partners," or "Good Omens didn't hurt me enough, and I take personal exception to it!" then Time War is emphatically the next thing you ought to read.
I keep turning away from speaking of your letter.
To speak of it would be to contain what it did to me, to make it small.
At only 209 pages, This Is How You Lose the Time War is an achingly short read. It is a heartbreakingly short read. I still managed to draw the process out for nearly a week, because every damn chapter left me needing to stop and catch my breath, whether that was because of the fantastic suspense of some scenes depicting the main characters' elaborate timey-wimey espionage and sabotage of each other's plans, or because I was far too busy sobbing brokenly over its excruciatingly poetic prose, its completely sincere humanism couched in transhumanist imagery, or the utterly believable romantic entanglement that is this novel's beating heart.
Yes, I drew this book out for nearly a week and then sobbed even harder after it was finished, because this is the kind of story that it hurts to move on from. I have grieved before the departure from a book which cradled my spirit, which felt like home, which made me feel seen and understood. I have never grieved any book like this. The week after I read it, I was numb and listless over the horrifying possibility that I will never feel this strongly about any book ever again. I think it was really rather rude of this book, to be so affecting. What business does it have, tampering with my sentiments like this? What right, to wound me like this in my own reading chair? Outrage, I say! Outrage and impudence! Doesn't it know it's supposed to keep its messy, complicated, beautiful feelings to itself?
I speak in jest, because anything I say about this book will inevitably make it pitifully small, compared to what it did to me. Some books are for falling in love with a story. This is a story that, when you open it, love falls out - falls into you, the reader - and afterward that is just something you have to live with.
I have a new favourite book. I don't think I can ever completely forgive it for that.
You gave me so much — a history, a future, a calm that lets me write these words though I’m breaking. I hope I’ve given you something in return — I think you would want me to know I have. And what we’ve done will stand, no matter how they weave the world against us. It’s done now, and forever.
I can't forgive it, but I don't need to. Time War is - fundamentally and above all else - a hopeful story, a story which is essentially and incandescently optimistic. What can be more optimistic than a message in a bottle, cast out to sea, with no certainty of its destination? What optimism is more powerful than the choice between two enemies to find a common ground, to offer trust, to make peace between themselves, and to share in their hearts a mutual and equal defiance against all odds and the prejudices of their separate histories?
A book can break my heart as many times as it wants, as long as it promises this kind of healing optimism, this splendid eucatastrophe, is waiting for me in the final pages.
This is a book which happened to me, and it happened beautifully. I hope it happens to you, too.
Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.
Burn before reading.
Iron Noder 2020, 1/30