This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 2: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

PART 2: ‘Odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections’

This is Part 2 of Powder Scofield’s interview with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, authors of This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019). Part 1 can be read here. Special thanks to Robert Berg for his help with the interview.

Powder: We’ve been talking about your novella This Is How You Lose The Time War, which is an epistolary exploration of time and causality and privacy and intimacy and emotion and all of these things. And we’ve been talking a bit about the internet, and how the changing structures of the internet have maybe revealed different possibilities for solitude and togetherness.

For me, reading Time War also had this extra dimension of excitement because I was like, ‘Amal wrote that! Max wrote that!’ The three of us have odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections. Max, I met you at university, we’ve known each other for — God! — over eighteen years now. And Amal, I met you online the first time I was living in the UK …

Amal: That was around 2007, through a game of Changeling: The Dreaming.

Powder: But when did you two first meet?

Amal: ReaderCon in 2014. I was vaguely aware of Max, because I had an ARC of Two Serpents Rise, but I hadn’t read it yet. I was on the programming committee, so I was responsible for taking ideas that people sent in and making panel items out of them. One panel was about magic and technology, and I was curious how that would go. So I went to the panel and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy whose book I have on my shelf.’ I sat down and I lasted about ten minutes of taking notes before I actually started vibrating with frustration that I wasn’t just having this conversation with him away from the rest of the panel. He was saying every single thing that I wanted someone to say about the stuff on this panel that I had put together, and it was irritating that I wasn’t on the panel too. So I actually at some point just got up and left! That’s how I actually met Steph first, because I think I ran into her in the hallway as I was leaving, and I was like, ‘Yeah, your husband’s really smart.’

Max: How did you know that she was my wife? Had you seen us together?

Amal: No, someone introduced us. Actually, I think she might have even said, ‘Hi, I’m Max Gladstone’s wife,’ and I was like, ‘WHAT…’

Max: Excellent!

Amal: So later that night we’re both at a party. I was reviewing books for NPR at the time, and there are rules at NPR about reviewing books by friends. My NPR editor was literally in the room. So I walked up to Max, and I think what I said was, ‘Hello! I think if the two of us sat down together for a while we could maybe solve the world’s problems, but I can’t be friends with you because I want to review your books so … yeah.’

Max: Which, as an initial approach line, leaves you without a lot of obvious responses, I will say.

Powder: Do you remember your response? 

Continue reading “This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 2: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone”

The Time Machine

Reviewed by Jo Lindsay Walton

Time travel plus pandemic: the elevator pitch might simply be, “Dr WHO.”

Written by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Natasha Rickman, The Time Machine is a free and freewheeling response to H.G. Wells’s classic text, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

Like previous work by Creation Theatre, The Time Machine is an immersive, site-specific production. You prowl around the London Library in a little gaggle, led by your Time Traveller guide, occasionally chased by a spooky Morlock, and now and then bumping into other characters. Continue reading “The Time Machine”

This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 1: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Screenshot 2020-03-11 at 22.53.08

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019) has been gathering a glowing reception. It’s an intense, lyrical, tragicomic novella about two elite warriors, Red and Blue, who strike up a correspondence across the millenia and across enemy lines. Adam Roberts, in his pick of SFF of the year, calls it ‘one of a kind.’ The novella has also made the shortlist for the 2019 BSFA Award. Late in 2019, Powder Scofield joined Amal and Max to shoot the breeze. This interview is a two-parter, with Part 2 dropping next week. Special thanks to Robert Berg for all his help with the interview.

PART I: ‘So we were in this gazebo …’

Powder: You’ve said one of the foundational premises of your friendship was writing physical letters to one another, and obviously that shows up in This Is How You Lose The Time War. Are there other bits of real life embedded in Time War? When you’re working on a project, how much are you intentionally processing past experience? 

Max: Some of it’s intentional, but in my experience, intention is like a raft that’s on an ocean that’s in the middle of a storm. You’re aware of what you can see, but you’re not in control of it as much as you think you are. There’s a little rudder, and you can maybe try to paddle. But if a wave is driving you east, you’re going east. So I think when we sat down to write, we both knew that we were drawing on our experience of writing letters to each other, and of correspondence more generally, and the particular strange kind of time travel that you do when you’re writing a letter, especially a physical letter. But at the same time, there’s the raft, there’s the ocean, and there’s the storm.

Powder: There’s a line in the book, like, “There’s a kind of time travel in letters.” I can see that. The time it takes to write a letter, the time it takes to get there. The way letters can sometimes cross each other in transit.

Max: Exactly. You’re imagining who the other person is that will be receiving this, you’re imagining where you’ll be when they’re receiving the letter in a week or two. You’re wondering sometimes about the many forces that could stand between you dropping the small and very fragile piece of paper into a confusing and vast and twisty basically state system with the hope and trust that the $1.35 stamp will see it across the international border to someone else’s actual house just because you happen to put some words on it. So all of these steps create many different versions of yourself and of the recipient and of your respective spaces. I think that was the intent with Time War. But there are other things that I think were beneath and driving that intent. 

Amal: And to answer really literally, when we were writing the book, we were also in a gazebo with no internet. So we were sitting across from each other and we only had recourse to our own bodies of knowledge. The book is built primarily out of no research, but instead what we both brought to the literal table between us in a literal gazebo as we wrote things! There’s so much in there built out of, for one thing, the surroundings. It was a gorgeous late June, early July in the Midwest. There were trees and birds and plants and things that were finding their ways into the things we were writing, for sure …

Max: Except that I don’t know plants and animals as well as you do. For me: it was green … green was nice … Continue reading “This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 1: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone”

Living on Borrowed Time

By Erin Horáková


This academic article explores Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City, focusing on worldbuilding and in particular the economic arrangements, overt and implied, of Time City’s peculiar temporalities. How might time travel ask us to reimagine the horizons of economic possibility? What lacunae and anomalies do we encounter in the economic life of a city unbound by linear time? Jones has offered up a mechanism with which to approach issues, and to pose large questions: how do we negotiate power to ethically interact with others economically?

  • Review: This article underwent editorial review by two editors.
  • License: Copyright Erin Horáková, all rights reserved.
  • Citation: Horáková, E. 2018. Living on Borrowed Time. Vector #288.
  • Keywords: Diana Wynne Jones, speculative economics, temporality, worldbuilding

The narrative suggests that the smooth running of history is a quantifiable, scientific question, but in addition to science’s being quite vulnerable to subjective, self-advantaging perspectives, Time City also has economic reason to keep the development of technology going ‘how it’s supposed to go.’ They have reason, too, to keep intact the stable eras with which they trade, and on whose tourism they rely. If helping the wrong bit of the human race might jeopardise that, Time City-zens are clearly willing to watch a few eggs break in order to wait for the omelette they want. We know almost nothing, really, about the laws or moral codes that govern Time City’s interactions with history.

Jones is less interested in the SFnal potentialities of creating a place out of and adjacent to all of time than she is in the social ramifications of such a place’s existence. She understands colonialism and can deal with it startlingly deftly, as in Dark Lord of Derkholm [6], illuminating the social fallout of unequal power structures in a way that can vex post-colonial scholars. Here Jones sees her world (or worlds—both the one she occupies and the one she’s written) clearly enough to make this aspect of its infrastructure its key problem. And yet she simultaneously doesn’t seem to understand the dimensions of that problem quite well enough to grasp its whole shape, much less know how to rigorously answer the question she’s posed.

More than anything else, Diana Wynne Jones’ children’s science-fantasy novel A Tale of Time City (1987) is about the eponymous micro-civilisation: a city-state outside of time. Time City monitors the events of the whole anthropocene, trades with sufficiently advanced civilisations, and partakes of the best of every era. This article conducts a ‘world factbook’ style survey of this economy, to the extent that’s possible based on the information the book gives us (and with markedly less dodgy CIA involvement). We’ll look at the state’s sources of income, labour within it, economic immigration to the city, and finally the ultimate effects of Time City’s colonial trade relations with what its citizens call ‘history.’ Via this case study, I hope to provide a way into thinking about time travellers and other agents outside of time as economic actors.

Continue reading “Living on Borrowed Time”

Short Story Club: “This Must Be The Place”

Here’s the story; and here’s the comment, starting with readers on the Strange Horizons forum:

KYL: I was really stunned by this story. A beautiful variation on an old theme, and very movingly done. Some parts made me sad because I don’t know if I can ever write anything that good.

Coolchinamonkey: I came across your story after having googled the song. Temporal etiquette. Brilliant. The whole damn story is brilliant. Keep writing like that and you’ll find your way. Superb.

Jason Sanford at The Fix:

The February 2009 fiction from Strange Horizons features four stories from new writers. The first is “This Must Be the Place” by Elliott Bangs, which is also Elliott’s first professional publication. The story is the tale of Andrea, who is newly dumped, slightly drunk, and far from home when she meets Loren Wells in a San Francisco club. Loren is a fascinating guy who seems to already know Andrea, which simply can’t be true. But then Andrea discovers Loren’s secret: he is a time traveler from the future, reliving over and over what he consider the best year in history.

Elliott’s story is well-told, with a sharp style that enhances the story without ever overwhelming the actually storytelling. For example, when Andrea is dumped by a new boyfriend, she mutters that “All Bud had left me was a heap of dirty bowls and spoons, a crap sci-fi paperback, and that same old case of rabies,” with the rabies being her curiosity to discover who this Loren Wells character truly is. Because this is a first story, there is a small problem with the narrative. The story is set in 1984, but the reader doesn’t realize this until halfway through the story (meaning the writer should have set up this little fact better). But the mere fact that someone from the future would want to relive 1984 over and over delighted the hell out of me, while the story’s ending is as perfect as can be. As a result, the reader can’t help but overlook the story’s minor flaws. Recommended.

Rich Horton, in Locus, also liked it:

Elliott Wells’s [sic] first sale appears in February at Strange Horizons, and it’s a delight. Sometimes SF is a game, and especially so when dealing with time travel. “This Must Be The Place” mixes one part The Time Traveler’s Wife with perhaps a hint of Hobson’s Choice and a cup or so of “If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy”, while adding a healthy dose of ’80s nostalgia (of a sort) and with a great last line, to bring yet another slight change to an old theme. Andrea is stuck in a boring corporate job when she meets a guy who seems to have met her before, then they meet again in another city and the guy seems younger and doesn’t know her at all. Okay, SF readers know what’s going on right way, but Wells has found another way to make it fresh, to ring a fine new change or two on the old melody.

Lois Tilton, at IROSF, wasn’t so impressed:

Time travel. Andrea, a workaholic who drinks too much in bars, meets an equally undesirable man named Loren Wells who seems to have known her before. In another city, she is the one who recognizes a younger Loren. Elsewhere, she has the affair with another version of him and finally learns his secret.

An interesting idea, but the characters are both so disagreeable that I don’t particularly care when they are or what happens to them.

Among Torque Control readers, Evan didn’t care for it:

Not a lot to say about this one. I hate time travel stories, and this one is a particularly odious example of the breed. Too many time travel stories go into puzzle mode, and so too here. The writing is all right, but the characterization is of necessity a bit thin. As a disclaimer, it takes Gene Wolfe level talent to get me interested in this sort of thing, so my opinion is best ignored here.

Nor did Chance:

My main beefs with the story are basically two: There’s no real sense of time identity here. We either get 80s cliches or no description at all. Andrea was wearing a “borrowed dress” There’s “throbbing music.” Of course, we don’t get the details on why the future isn’t very interesting either. And then you get the talking points: flock of seagulls hair, she blinded me with science, talking heads (though she blinded me with science was in heavy rotation on MTV in 83, not 84. And the Talking heads song on MTV was almost certainly Burning Down the House, not the song the story is named for.) It all adds up to a bland vagueness that gives the impression that the author knows very little about 1984 and didn’t live through it.

The other problem is neither of the two main characters is very interesting.(and the other characters are nothing but plot movers, especially Bud.) Loren loves pop culture to the point where he doesn’t care about seeing his family or friends. He’d much rather live in a time when Michael Jackson wasn’t considered a nutbag. Excuse me while I yawn at the dullness of his interests. But at least he has an interest–Andrea appears to have none. We don’t even get the details on why she and Loren break up. So ultimately I could not care less what happens to these two vapid bores.

If I ever get a time travel machine, I’m going to travel back in time and tell myself not to read this story. I just hope I listen.

Maureen wasn’t wild about it, either:

But we are in the hands of a first-person narrator who is utterly clueless about such things. I’d hesitate to say she’s a monster but she is not a very thoughtful person. Her life is shallow but in many respects it seems to be the life she deserves. She seems to be very isolated, and although she clearly hates it she seems to show little inclination to move on – determinism at work. The one time she takes action is to move to Seattle, away from everything reminding her of Loren, and it’s interesting that she a) does not talk about what went wrong, but b) does for the first time mention making friends. And yet, at the end, she blows it. Having discovered the secret of the mysterious motorbike, she determines that she is going back in time because she likes The Beatles. (Is it bad of me to wonder which moment of Beatles history she would want to go back to?)

In fact, it’s that ending that undoes the story for me. I can put up with some horribly clunky and ill-thought-through descriptions, such as ‘My borrowed dress was heavy with perspiration and self-consciousness’ (you know, I bet it wasn’t heavy with either), and the alliterative arabesques, like the ‘sequin-scaled scarecrow’ … sounds lovely, what does it mean; not to mention the ‘chatter of cocaine conversation’ but that cutesy ending? No, really, it’s so trite it’s ridiculous. Until then I would be quite willing to argue that despite superficial appearances, there is more going on in this story than is obvious at first sight, and that while I wasn’t in love it it, I did enjoy the process of reading it critically, but that last paragraph did sound as though it was lifted from a school essay. Not the idea, which is in keeping with her lack of self-awareness, but the execution.

But Rose liked it:

As someone who deeply and seriously loves 80s music, I approve of this story. Light and sweet, very cute.

And now, the floor is open.