It is the far future and things are not going well. Although mankind has made it to various parts of the solar system, most natural resources have entered entropic states and the earth itself if suffering from a terrible environmental plague that has helped reduce the great majority of the population to penury. The good news is that time travel has become a reality and a guild of tough, hard-drinking sociopaths, known as chronmen, are able to return to the past to retrieve resources that can be used in the present, so long as doing so does not materially affect the timeline. So, it is possible to pick up stuff that is lying around if it is about to be destroyed by fire, for example but not just suddenly to appear and remove the Mona Lisa lest some unpleasant but unspecified paradoxes occur. Inevitably, given that the chronmen have the ability to rescue people from certain death but are obliged not to do so enforces a fierce psychological toll on then and most of those involved suffers some form of burnout before long. This is an established trope which reminded me of ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ by Cordwainer Smith from as long ago as 1950.
Enter into this scene our protagonist James Griffin-Mars, who exhibits all the psychological symptoms that might be expected and, as a result, behaves with all the aplomb of a violent, boorish thug (or Scanner). However, we are allowed to enter his mind and witness the various failures and deaths that have conspired to make him the man he has become. The chronmen (there have been no chronwomen in the text so far) live a life of indentured labour and have to work off a debt before being permitted to retire from their efforts. This has led to a confrontational workplace environment and relations between ranks can be very antagonistic. When, as might have been predicted (it is explained on the back cover blurb, for example), James is called upon to break the prime directive of chronpersonhood, then he will of course be obliged to keep it all a secret and to pursue a life of crime that surely will lead to a grim end. This in fact is pretty close to what actually happens, although the novel ends in such a way that a sequel seems to be very likely.
This is the first book that I have read by Wesley Chu but I understand that he has built up quite a reputation for himself. He is certainly capable of spinning a fast-paced romp with vivid characters and a good sense of the ambient background. The story requires a degree of suspension of disbelief, which is always likely to be true with any kind of time travel fiction (I remember with particular fondness one of Stanislaw Lem’s Tales of Pirx the Pilot in this respect). The plot seems to follow a fairly well-defined path and there are some scenes where the dialogue is little more than a perfunctory means of advancing the story. However, overall, the book is a lot of fun and I would imagine I would be willing to read a sequel, as and when one might appear.