A few hundred years in the future, humanity has retreated underground apart from a small number of people who are trying to reclaim the Earth’s surface via ecological restoration projects. This a world of complex future technology and body modification but also one in which the mundane reality of project timelines, quotes, tenders and convincing sceptical banks you need money is how clever, inventive people have to spend much of their time.
It is also a world where some business adopt disruptive technology that upset existing economic trends. For Minh, an environmental engineer, her life’s work restoring river systems has had its economic impetus sucked away from it by a trendy new industry that is so shiny that it has monopolised all investment: time travel.
Enter a kind of Faustian bargain: a mysterious somebody is running a project to rejuvenate the Euphrates, and they need a team to collect vital survey data from a time when the river system was more alive. This project would mean sending Minh and three others back to the cradle of civilisation with the aid of the trendy but secretive Temporal Economic Research Node (TERN).
Meanwhile, in the ancient city of Ur, King Shugli is having a hard time. There are new stars in the sky and strange beings in the fields. Hs high priestess wants him dead and he knows that it is a heroic king’s duty to slay monsters.
A time-travel, culture clash story with project timelines in which people are people no matter where and when they are from. There is a lot of deep world-building delivered in a short space, with an efficient sketch of a future society of crowded habitats, and generational resentments mixed with high-minded ideals and commercial realities.
Structurally, each chapter starts in the deep past where Shugli and his people try to make sense of the disruption caused by the time travels. These events we won’t see from Minh and her team’s perspective until later in the story, allowing us to first see their intrusion as something more akin to an alien invasion.
The rules of time travel are established early but given TERN’s attitude of NDAs and commercial-in-confidence, patent-protection secretiveness, the reader has no good reason to accept that the explanation given is true. The official account is that time travel is without consequence: a temporary timeline split occurs when travellers arrive, which then collapses when they leave. The only strong confirmation of this is TERN’s commercial frustration that they can’t change the past despite encouragement from the banks.
Consequence-free time travel may sound like a lazy way for a writer to play with time travel but avoid paradoxes of Jeremy Bearimy/timey-wimey plots. However, what Robson does with this premise is present us with a picture of colonialist attitudes, in which future people treat the past with a casual callousness. This neatly mirrors the future societies experience with the decisions of people in our time, who having discounted the lives of future humans have left the people of Minh’s time with a ravaged Earth.
If these seems all too much to fit into a novella, then you’d be right. Packed full of ideas, an interesting set of six characters and three narratives (Shugli’s story, the initial future setting and then the expedition) as well as the surrounding world building, there’s barely room for the story to breathe. I felt I was just getting a handle on the generational dynamics between the characters by the time the story hit its more action orientated section. The ending itself feels rushed and unresolved with the consequences of each of the character’s choices unclear to me. I had to go back an re-read earlier sections more than once to get particular plot points clear in my head (although, its notable that I was sufficiently invested in the fate of these people to do that).
There is a brilliant novel here that just didn’t quite work in this compressed form. Aside from anything else, Shugli’s story and his dynamic with the priestess Susa could have been longer. Yes, obviously we know from the start that the mysterious events Shugli sees must be the time-travel expedition we see being planned in the future but I liked that the people of Ur got to deal with a sci-fi mystery in a way that could be convincingly pre-modern without them being stupid or lacking insight.
I also felt that Fabian and TERN’s attitudes and motives were under-explored and also that there was an unresolved question about who exactly was financing this expedition and why. Early on, it felt like these were being set up as a mystery that the story would reveal but we don’t really get there.
I get the buzz around this story and my dissatisfaction with it really comes from multiple features that I liked and I finished it feeling frustrated by it.