The Story: Ann, the protagonist, is an abandoned child, never adopted because of the brutal scars on her body. She grew up in foster care and as an adult is a computer hacker and completely emotionally withdrawn. Then she’s recruited by a company which reveals it’s based in the future. The future is a mess so the company is sending people back through time to make incremental changes that will gently improve things. After a couple of time trips (matriarchal Crete, the library of Alexandria, medieval Cathars), Ann begins to notice that the changes all seem to shift power to men and away from women, as well as turning the 21st century into a dictatorship. And the agents of the group Core, which has infiltrated the company, warn Ann her employers are not to be trusted …
WHAT I LEARNED
When a book clicks, quality can be irrelevant. Nancy Kress made this point years ago in one of her columns for Writer’s Digest: some books, objectively dreadful, become successful because they connect with readers. Despite the big flaws in the book, I read it fast and (for a change) not because I was desperate to get it over with. It hooked me, even as I was muttering about the bad parts. If I could do that with my own work, I’d be a happy man, but for the life of me I don’t see how.
Characters have to want something. I know, that’s writing advice 101, but Ann is a textbook example of why it’s true. She’s a total cipher: no goals, no awareness of the world (she keeps wondering if the political changes she’s seeing are really changes or just stuff she didn’t notice), nothing she wants other than a vague desire for a mother. I assume she’s meant to be the computer-centric introvert but she doesn’t work even at that level: she never seems to care about computers except when the plot requires it, and neither wants to overcome her barriers and connect, nor keep people away.
And the other characters aren’t much better. Her corporate supervisors are all interchangeable—I can’t tell one from the other.
Moral ambiguity is a good thing. In the course of the book we learn the company really does have a horrible future, so they’re not completely black hats—but as Ann notes, does that justify making the past worst (by our standards) to give them a better future? This is not a terribly novel idea—just another version of “is it moral to kill Hitler as a child for the greater good?” (a la Flight That Disappeared for instance)—but it does add a little complexity. Ann, for example, realizes it’s not enough to thwart the company—she starts finding ways to avert the future problems without their ruthless methods.
Forty-year-old cliches do not a good theme make. Having the company push the world down a more sexist path is a good idea … except it reads like Goldstein wrote it in the 1970s. Idealized versions of matriarchal, mother goddess-worshipping societies, general complaints about sexism and patriarchy—couldn’t she have included something fresher? For example pushing pop-science bullshit about how women are automatically drawn to powerful men. Or scrubbing women who are inconveniently accomplished or important out of history. Or boosting the MRA movement. Anything that’s more 21st century.
The ambiguity of the company’s end game is a disadvantage here. Is increasing patriarchy an unfortunate side effect? A necessary (in their eyes) sacrifice? Do they believe women’s rights are as much a failure as democracy? We never learn. Even Ann’s female supervisors don’t have an opinion on this. That leeches a lot of the conflict out.
Despite reading it so convulsively, this was a rare disappointment from Goldstein. Hopefully whatever I pick next month won’t be.