Review of Palimpsest by Charles Stross
by Charles Stross
So after finishing The Time Traveler’s Wife I realized that the next book on my shelf was Family Matters. The last Rohinton Mistry book I read cut me up, so I decided that before I attempted this next one, I would need something I was guaranteed to enjoy. Fortunately, my awesome limited edition of Palimpsest had just arrived from Subterranean Press. I first read Palimpsest when it was a nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novella. It subsequently won, deservedly, the award, and so when I heard that Subterranean Press was coming out with a hardcover edition, I jumped to pre-order it.
Time travel is weird, confusing, and inconsistent. There is no way to avoid that—and embracing this fact is the key to good time-travel fiction. Whether it’s Doctor Who or Primer, the method and mood of this mad embrace can be quite varied, but the end result is the same: a time travel story, when done properly, should blow your mind.
Where most authors go wrong in their time travel plots is a desire to make sense. So they go to the trouble of establishing various rules that attempt to compel their non-linear story into a linear box, forgetting all the while that once you break causality, there is no going back. Palimpsest is a refreshing change, because Charles Stross doesn’t try to make sense. He acknowledges and works with the utter insanity that would be a universe where time travel is possible. This allows him to accomplish wonderful things, but it also demands a great deal of tolerance from the reader. I can understand why some would reject this book as too confusing and too brief.
The novella opens with Pierce describing, in the second-person narration that Stross uses as an interstitial technique, how he has to kill his own grandfather (TVTropes) as the beginning of his training for the Stasis. The Stasis is a group of time travellers, pledged to manipulate history and reseed humanity each time it goes extinct on Earth. (Humanity, Stross explains, always goes extinct.) They go to incredible lengths to achieve this goal. Stross lyrically describes how they tinker with the ultimate fate of the Earth and solar system on a cosmic scale and literally manipulate the rise and fall of civilization to serve their own ends. Though Stasis’ stated goal is the ultimate good—survival of the human species—they sure do seem authoritarian about it.
As he undergoes his two-decade-long training period, Pierce develops a fascination with palimpsests. These are periods of history that have been rewritten so many times that it becomes very difficult to access any given version of history. (The Stasis has a Library that exists at the end of the Earth, which is protected from all changes to the timeline and therefore records various versions of history. This frustrates new agents who haven’t yet learned that the Library lies.) After Pierce survives an assassination attempt, presumably from someone out to prevent something he will do in his own future, he convalesces in a science empire of the far future, marries a native, and has a family. When he makes a quick trip to the Library to sort out an academic dispute, he discovers that period of history has been turned into a palimpsest, and he might never see his family again.
Pierce eventually becomes drawn into a much larger plot threatening the existence of Stasis itself. We, along with Pierce, are kept in the dark about the nature of this plot until close to the end of the book. But without going into spoilers, I can fairly succinctly describe the nature of the resistance: the name “Stasis” should be a clue. Though Stasis has humanity’s preservation at heart, it enforces this survival in a draconian and single-minded way. There is no room in Stasis’ agenda for extraterrestrial intelligence, space exploration, or indeed any type of development or growth that does not ultimately support Stasis. This meta-social construct has turned into a kind of symbiotic organism relying on the entirety of human history to exist.
Palimpsest isn’t perfect, and if I could wish for one improvement, it would be an extension to novel length. There is just so much going on here, an entire vocabulary and way of life that Stross can only barely explore. The events that take place evoke so many classics of science fiction and of time travel stories—for example, Pierce dies multiple times, even causing his own death at times. What does this mean for the nature of self, for our identity or even, if you believe in such a thing, our souls? These questions all linger in the back of one’s mind, but more so because I am already aware of them and know to apply them to these circumstances. They remain frustratingly unexplored, even somewhat unasked, because there just isn’t enough space.
Similarly, Pierce himself is kind of a lacklustre protagonist. Oh, don’t get me wrong. He’s an OK kind of guy, though I would have liked to learn more about him. But for most of the novella he gets dragged along with the plot rather than actually showing much initiative—and when he does show initiative, it tends to backfire! So readers who are waiting for Pierce to step up and own the story might be disappointed—or pleasantly surprised. I can’t say…. And to be fair, Stross acknowledges the powerlessness Pierce feels: when Pierce comes face-to-face with the person running the plot against Stasis, he confesses that he feels just as manipulated as when he was collaborating with the Stasis Internal Affairs department. Both sides are manipulating Pierce, and this becomes key to the novella’s final, profound pages.
I won’t deny that this book pushes my buttons in all the right ways, and for that reason, I am more than ready to overlook any flaws. I love Palimpsest so much because I feel like Stross has created a realistic portrayal of time travel, and in so doing demonstrated why time travel shouldn’t be possible. If it were, our universe would be an even crazier place than it already is. Because if it were possible to rewrite history, then everyone would be running around, killing their past selves and grandfathers and Hitler—that, or some form of the Novikov self-consistency principle would result in time travel erasing the timeline where time travel is invented. Confused yet? Good. This is your brain on time travel. Don’t do it!
But if time travel were possible, then it would also present us with staggering choice. The very mutability of the continuum would mean that history would never be constant. Foiled plots one moment could be successful coups the next, and vice versa if you work for the other side. You can join the time agency and then, if you tire of the work, go back in time and prevent yourself from joining—or just erase yourself from history altogether! In short, time travel as Stross portrays it in Palimpsest is the ultimate chaotic vector. This is the final message of Palimpsest, and it is simultaneously invigorating and terrifying.