A solid techno-thriller with a time travel twist.
It’s hard to make a good time travel story without tripping over a few paradoxes, and Lost in Time by A.G. Riddle has them to spare. Even so, it’s one of the more interesting time travel stories I’ve read in recent memory.
Control the past.
Save the future.
One morning, Dr. Sam Anderson wakes up to find that the woman he loves has been murdered.
For Sam, the horror is only beginning.
He and his daughter are accused of the crime. The evidence is ironclad. They will be convicted.
And so, to ensure his daughter goes free, Sam does what he must: he confesses.
But in the future, murderers aren't sent to prison.
Thanks to a machine Sam helped invent, the world's worst criminals are now sent to the past – approximately 200 million years into the past, to the dawn of the time of the dinosaurs – where they must live out their lives alone, in exile from the human race.
Sam accepts his fate.
But his daughter doesn't.
Adeline Anderson has already lost her mother to a deadly, unfair disease. She can't bear to lose her father as well.
So she sets out on a quest to prove him innocent. And to get him back. People around her insist that both are impossible tasks.
But Adeline doesn't give up. She only works harder.
She soon learns that impossible tasks are her specialty. And that she is made of tougher stuff than she ever imagined.
As she peels back the layers of the mystery that tore her father from this world, Adeline finds more questions than answers. Everyone around her is hiding a secret. But which ones are connected to the murder that exiled her father?
That mystery stretches across the past, present, and future – and leads to a revelation that will change everything.
Lost in Time doesn’t waste any time getting started. We’ve barely been introduced to Sam and his family before he’s being arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. Railroaded into a confession to save his daughter, Sam is convicted and sentenced in record time. It’s an engaging opening that quickly invests you in Sam’s plight, but it leaves a lot of unanswered questions—many of which won’t really be resolved until the end.
Sam is sentenced to exile via the Absalom project, which sends dangerous criminals into an parallel-timeline version of prehistoric Earth. While I question the book’s assertion that this alternate death penalty would magically cut down on the world’s crime rates, it is an interesting conceit. Sam, the murdered woman (Nora), and several of their friends were the inventors of Absalom, so it is particularly ironic when Sam is exiled via his own machine.
The book is told in split-narrative, alternating between Sam and his daughter Adeline. I did enjoy the scenes with Sam trying not to become a dino-snack in the Triassic jungle, but they felt like a distraction from the main plot. Despite the book opening with Sam, this is really Adeline’s story. Having already lost her mother, Adeline is desperate to prove her father’s innocence and rescue him from exile. The key to both may lie with the other Absalom inventors and a new version of the Absalom machine they’ve been working on.
Adeline is smart, resilient, and determined. I just wish the book had given her more depth. Her single-minded obsession for rescuing her father eclipses all other aspects of her character. All the characters are pretty shallow—most of Sam’s fellow inventors, all prime suspects in Nora's murder, have one defining character trait each—but it’s particularly noticeable with Adeline. The flat characters keep some of the story’s more emotional beats from hitting as hard as I think they could have.
Still, I enjoyed the book. The plot is brisk and exciting, reminiscent of a Michael Crichton techno-thriller. It had some great twists, and I really had a hard time putting it down towards the end.
- Princess Power:
- Bechdel Test: Pass
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Time Travel Geekery (SPOILERS)
I wanted to talk specifically about one of the twists, and the book’s take on time travel. Both are impossible to do without spoilers, so come back to this after you’ve read the book.
Seriously, major spoilers ahead.
You have been warned.
The time travel paradox that is central to the book’s narrative is called the “Bootstrap Paradox”, or “Causal Loop”. It’s probably most well-known from the Terminator franchise. Skynet sends the Terminator back in time to kill John Connor's mother before he's born, preventing him from ever leading the human resistance. John sends soldier Kyle Reese back to protect Sarah. Kyle falls in love with Sarah, and becomes John’s father.
The bootstrap paradox has always interested me because, as Anja Sjöstrom from Secrets of the Universe puts it, “the bootstrap paradox distorts our understanding of cause and effect.”
In the normal cause-and-effect world:
- Cause: John becomes the leader of the resistance
- Effect: John sends Kyle back in time to protect Sarah.
But in the bootstrap paradox, the effects cause the causes in a weird chicken-and-egg problem: How was John born in the first place, if Adult John sending Kyle back in time is what caused him to be born?
Once the time loop gets going, everything fits together like a seamless animated GIF, which I find supremely satisfying. There’s just that pesky problem of the inciting event, which relies on future events that haven't happened yet.
(Another of my favorite instances of the bootstrap paradox is in the TV show Timeless, which I talk about in its finale episode review.)
So, getting back to Lost In Time… Riddle has built an amazing closed time loop. Nora’s murder leads to Sam being sent to Absalom, which leads to Adult Adeline (aka Danielle) sending her younger self back in time. This is essentially the inciting event for the time loop, since everything afterward can be traced back to that moment: the inventions of both Absalom 1 and Absalom 2, Adeline/Danielle's investment in the tissue clone company, and ultimately the faking of Nora's death with a tissue clone. It was a series of twists that I didn’t see coming, and I felt completely satisfied when it all came together.
I also liked how the book acknowledged the consequences of this. If time travel back into the same timeline were possible, anything that future time travelers are going to do has already happened in the past. This was another great twist in the story as Danielle found evidence of herself time-traveling into various points in history from her own future. The way this tied in with saving Elliott's son was especially poignant.
But why was Nora “murdered” in the first place? How could her death have been faked with a tissue clone before Adeline travelled back into the past? Where did the pearls and driver's license originally come from?
There’s no definitive answer, of course, just like there’s no definitive answer to the John/Kyle problem. That’s why it’s a paradox. And that, to me, is both maddening and utterly fascinating.
I love time travel stories, even when they make my head hurt. :)