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Time Salvager photo cover_timesalvager_zps2f94b49a.jpg

Wesley Chu's Time Salvager has a serious tell-don't-show problem, and the biggest disservice that results from it is to the female characters. I have to admit I was not as excited about this book as a lot of other people were, but that's solely because I read the preview chapter available online and realized that the writing was terrible. It's clunky, it's sterile, and it's just not worth reading.

But let's talk about what the real problem of the book was for me. Well, two of them, intertwined. One, and the lesser transgression, is the lack of editing — and I can barely bring myself to call this the lesser of the two evils, as I'm an editor and hold that a good edit can work wonders for a manuscript. Those are wonders Time Salvager sorely needed. But that's only one problem. The other, which a good edit may have indeed fixed, is that Time Salvager silences its women. Some vague spoilers follow.

Time Salvager is the story of James Griffin-Mars, and, to a lesser extent, of Elise Kim and Levin Javier-Oberon. James is a chronman, a time-traveller sanctioned by the time travel agency of the 26th century. His job is to go back in time and salvage resources from the past to help keep at bay humanity's extinction in the present. This is apparently a very male-dominated profession, for reasons of... temperament? Propensity to criminal pasts? Other gender essentialist nonsense? The gender woes start early. While the first POV character we meet is a woman, she is quickly left for dead. She returns later in the narrative, but the early chapters are bleak when it comes to women: of three female characters named in the early chapters: Grace, Palia, and Sasha — that's right, only three named women up until Elise shows up on page 80 — all three are presumed dead for the majority of the book. Pallia doesn't get to do anything besides be named and die off-page. It's pretty bad.

But then we get to Himalia Station, where our hero is based at the start of the book.
Himalia Station wasn't as large as the other bases. [...] Still, it had a population of a quarter million, mostly gas miners, military, and ChronoCom personnel, which skewed the gender demographics slightly towards men. More like six to one.
This is the year of our lord 2511 in the narrative. So women, in the far future, have not advanced to the point of holding more than one out of seven positions as miners and military and time travellers? Let's just sit and think about this future for a minute.

Of course, this is supposed to be a bleak future, but so much of grimdark and generally negative worldbuilding is based on devaluing women specifically. It's a bit suspicious, you know?

 photo deepsigh_zpstxhse5w8.gif

Eventually, a female character does show up who actually gets to stick around. But there's a huge problem with how she's introduced. She gets a brief and admittedly good moment when she first shows up and surprises and intimidates James. After a very brief conversation using actual dialogue (mostly just an exchange of names and titles), her introduction as a character proceeds thusly in the text:
James quickly learned that this Sector Two chief was a talkative one. As they walked, she became his personal tour guide. She swelled with pride as she chattered on about Nutris as if she had built it with her own two hands. Several tims, she stopped to point down at some of the structures, detailing many of the facilities [...].

She also asked him a lot of questions, which made James profoundly uncomfortable. The woman was far too helpful and way too friendly. [...] So he did his best to divert their discussion back to her, which Elise was happy to do.

Elise delved into detail about her training [...]. It took only a few minutes for her to lose him with her jargon.

James caught himself studying Elise, fascinated. There was something very different about her. For one thing, she was so animated and alive, a far cry from the miners, prostitutes, and sad husks barely living in the present. The other thing he realized that drew him to her was her optimisim. She practically glowed at every topic they talked about.


He took the time to further examine his perplexing guide. [...] And now that the conversation had veered away from him, James didn't mind her chattiness. There was something about the sound of her voice. It didn't sound tired. He also decided that he liked her bright smile. It was a good one as far as those went.

James held his disappointment in check when they reached the transport hub where everyone else was being processed. He had hardly spoken five words to her and hoped to find a reason to delay parting ways.
This gives us a lot of information about Elise but, crucially, it doesn't let her speak for herself. Her conversation is described, not shown; we are told what she is like without letting us experience it for ourselves. This is almost the entire introduction for this character, and it barely lets her get a word in edgewise. James breaks the first Time Law for this woman to bring her back to his present, and we barely get to know her before this happens.

Lest we suppose this is an isolated incident, this trend continues. For example, at one point Levin has a disagreement with a fellow auditor. Rather than show her speaking up for herself, we get one sentence of description: "Joellen bristled and laid into Levin defensively." There are so few female characters in this book and it feels like every time a crucial character-building conversation is supposed to happen, it's described rather than shown. Frankly, it feels like Wesley Chu is afraid of writing women's dialogue.

There is a point, on page 238, when Elise is describing the twenty-first century Earth to the tribe that has taken her and James in. This is another chance for Elise to shine; she is described as being passionate and full of conviction. But again, we don't get to hear this important character-building — and world-building — dialogue, because a woman is saying it.

This is further shown by the developing relationship between Grace Priestly and Elise. They have one very brief interaction when the two first meet, but after that, their relationship is entirely described rather than shown. This is the book's entire chance to pass the Bechdel Test — rest assured, their first interaction with actual dialogue was centered on James, a man, and therefore did not pass Bechedel — and it fails miserably. We finally have a chance for two women to interact, and rather than letting them actually talk to each other, the book handwaves the relationship. After that touchy first interaction, we get this:
The entire time, the two women berated him on his thoughtlessness. Somehow, in the fifteen minutes he had left them alone, they had become friends and decided to combine their powers against him.
"Somehow," huh?

Yet another instance occurs during another interaction between Elise and James:
As she often did when slightly nervous, she began to gab.

She told him about her experiments and trials and how helpful Grace was. She moved on to the gossip within the Elfreth and how all the older women doted on her and tried to match-make her with some of the young strapping men in the tribe. She continued talking about her plans to make Rami her new apprentice and how she wanted to start a school to teach all the Alfreth children. She finally stopped herself when she realized that they had made an entire circuit around the Farming Towers and he hadn't said a word. Elise decided she liked that about him. She appreciated how deeply he listened.
Time Salvager silences its women. Men are allowed to actually talk to each other, have real conversations as if their words matter. Women have their character-establishing conversations described rather than quoted, and, crucially, their conversations with each other are not shown.

 photo inadequate.jpg

This is my biggest problem with Time Salvager, but not my only one. It's an Angry Robot acquisition, though it's published by Tor in the United States, and it shows all of Angry Robot's typical lack of editorial standards. There are misplaced quotation marks, factual inconsistencies, and POV violations. For example, during a section from Elise's POV, the narrative at one point reads, "Elise looked stunned," rather than, "Elise was/felt stunned." She would have no idea how she looked, only how she felt. They're small things, but these small things add up into a poorer reading experience. And a good edit, I still hold, would have also caught the crucial lack of dialogue for the women, because that's not just a feminist problem, but a general issue with how characters are introduced to and experienced by the reader. A good edit may even have fixed some of the generally poor and sterile writing.

There was also one odd interlude. Levin, an auditor, is on the trail of Cole, a rogue chronman. Cole travels to Ming Dynasty China, and uses his far-future technology to disguise himself as a martial arts master. The locals buy this completely and it enters local lore. This seems weirdly orientalizing to me, using such racialized ideas to describe an actual historical period as well as the choice of disguise.

Overall, Time Salvager suffers from a critical overdose of telling instead of showing and is plagued by a generically angsty hero. It does have women, and they do even interact, but the narrative does a lot to deprive these women of their voices. I will say, greatest of the antagonists is a woman, and this is to the book's credit, but it says something that the woman given the greatest leave to actually talk is the one unambiguously coded as evil. Adding to the book's weaknesses is how little it actually resolves of the overarching plot. As the first in a series, it doesn't have to tie up every loose end, but the ending felt rushed and small, and not on par with the scale of the problems presented. Finally, the entire section with the Elfreth was criminally boring. If you're signing up for a time travel book, surprisingly little of that is actually shown, and what there is is rather derivative. Time Salvager plunders genre tropes and SFF history to cobble together a worn and weary narrative in much the same way its chronmen plunder their own history to shore up a faded present.

In the end, it's just not a book I would recommend. It's too poorly written, it does too much disservice to its female characters, and it's got too many flaws to be worth the emotional and intellectual investment. Pass.

Thoughts Elsewhere
The Guardian
Jim C. Hines
SF Signal
The Bibliosanctum
Relentless Reading

Date: 2015-10-21 02:05 am (UTC)
the_rck: (Default)
From: [personal profile] the_rck
[personal profile] lightreads reviewed this, too. The review is fairly brief, but I think their opinions march with yours.

Date: 2015-10-21 06:31 am (UTC)
owlmoose: stack of books (book - pile)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
Great review, but Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation appears to have struck again!
Edited (rewording) Date: 2015-10-21 06:32 am (UTC)

Date: 2015-10-21 12:10 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The telling not showing in the first Tao book drove me crazy. It read like an outline instead of a finished book. Roen was sympathetic to a degree but there was a strong flavor of dudebro that wasn't my cuppa. A few reviews suggested that Chu's writing had improved since the first Tao book, but your examples refute that pretty thoroughly.

Date: 2015-10-24 12:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
Hahaha, welp, this comment includes litrally everything I was going to say about the first Tao book and my hopes for Time Salvager. So I guess I just will say: Damn. I really hoped Wesley Chu's writing would have improved, and also his, yeah, bitter nice guy nerd aesthetic. But it sounds like not.

Date: 2015-10-21 05:10 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Photo of a pile of old leather-bound books. (books)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
This alas sounds consistent with the way women are handled in the Tao series of the same author; I really don't quite understand how or why. (Including quite how or why there were nominations two years running for the Not A Hugo.) Thank you lots for the review, however.


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