Palimpsest

Palimpsest
by Charles Stross
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis

In the afterword of his time-travel novella Palimpsest, author Charles Stross says that the story really, really wanted to be a novel, but that he was constrained by word count and publishing realities. This statement makes more sense in light of the fact that Palimpsest was written specifically to round out the story collection Wireless, published by Ace in 2009. But knowing this will do little to assuage frustrated readers clamoring for more, because Palimpsest is so packed with ideas and untapped potential that it does, indeed, deserve to be a novel.

Happily, Subterranean Press has given us the next best thing, a handsome hardcover limited edition of Palimpsest, complete with beautiful jacket and interior illustrations by J.K. Potter. It’s a fitting showcase for the Hugo Award-winning story, which is more complex and satisfying than many longer works.

Whether writing Lovecraftian horror spy comedies, or hard post-Singularity Science Fiction, Stross has proven a multifaceted master of the speculative genre. So it’s no surprise that he so adroitly and enjoyably tackles time travel in Palimpsest, beginning the tale with the oldest of time travel chestnuts (newbies, see: Grandfather Paradox) and turning it on its ear.

The main character, Pierce has been recruited by the Stasis, a seemingly omnipotent organization that has charged itself with the preservation and reseeding of mankind throughout Earth’s extinction events, and collecting the knowledge of countless human civilizations in a vast library located literally at the end of the world. Stasis agents use timegates to carry out this work, traveling to any of the two and a half million human epochs to record the entirety of the human experience.

But equally important as history to the Stasis is unhistory, and the timeline is riddled with palimpsests—events that have been written and overwritten—designed to maximize the Stasis’s reach and effectiveness.

When junior agent Pierce is caught in a palimpsest event apparently engineered to kill him, he is approached by an investigator from Internal Affairs to figure out who may want him dead. At this point Pierce begins to suspect that the Stasis may not be as all-powerful as its agents are led to believe, and must figure out a way to ferret out and protect himself against an opposition that technically doesn’t exist.

Plot intrigues aside, the most enjoyable aspect of Palimpsest is the way it plunges into time travel with abandon. Aside from an early passage that explains the operation and limitations of the timegates, Palimpsest remains uncluttered by needless exposition and handholding for the more linear-minded. Instead, it embraces the complexities inherent in the time travel genre and revels in the resulting incongruities and paradoxes, with the story ultimately culminating in a brilliant narrative Mobius strip.

And all of this is buttressed by flights of SFnal fancy, in which Stross details humanity’s increasingly esoteric methods of preserving the Earth in defiance of a dying Sun and impending galactic collision.

Palimpsest will please time travel buffs and hard Science Fiction enthusiasts alike, and Stross gives readers reason to take heart when he says that he may expand it into a novel one day. If only we had real timegates, so we could jump ahead to see how he realizes the full potential of this mind-bending tale.

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