The Big Idea: Wesley Chu

Time Travel! It’s a thing in science fiction. But after all this time, and time-travel stories, what is the thing about time travel that can still make it fresh for readers? In Time Salvager, author Wesley Chu thinks he’s got a wrinkle in time travel. What is it? Read on below.


Remember that classic 80s cartoon Voltron? That was one badass robot. Not the stupid Vehicle Voltron but the real deal Lion Force Voltron with primal roars and shit. The Big Idea for Time Salvager is like that, a bunch of bad ass lions forming Voltron, except there’s only two ideas (instead of five), no sword, and nothing is color coded. I’m Asian, so that has to count for extra Voltron points, right?

Let’s start with the first and obvious idea: time travel. Time travel stories that try to change history need to check themselves. I guarantee you, any scientist, real or fictional, who is developing time travel technology, knows about the butterfly effect and the consequences of changing history. So, why the hell would anyone mess with that? You mess with science, you get the horns. Trust me.

I mean, sure, killing Hitler or preventing Yoko Ono from breaking up the Beatles is all well and good, but have you really thought it through? We’ll give Yoko a pass. News flash, Sir Paul already debunked that little rumor.

Hitler, however, deserves killing. He deserves killing bad. Maybe more than any other asshole in history. We’re on the same page here. But, let’s say some dumb genius invents time travel with the express purpose of killing Hitler. He goes back and whacks twelve year old Adolf walking out of water coloring class.

Yay, Hitler’s dead. What happens next? The scientist doesn’t know. I sure as hell don’t. For all we know, the Third Reich happens anyway and instead of Hitler’s insatiable craving for St. Petersburg, they have a leader who reads a little Napoleonic history, looks at the map, and thinks, “Man, that’s a lot of land to cover. You know what? Maybe attacking Russia is a bad idea.”  Before you know it, we’re seventy years into the Thousand Year Reich. Well done, Mr. Scientist, well done. You just ruined the future for everyone.

So, if changing the past is too dangerous and we’re not here to kill Hitler, what is time traveling good for? Since the 1980s hold the answer to everything, I want you to remember Biff Tannen. He used a Grays Sports Almanac to win a crap-ton of money. Before you get excited, sorry, that counts as changing history. However, Biff had the right idea. The answer to the question is all about profit. How does a time traveler make it rain in the present by plundering the past?

Thankfully, I had one of those trippy Wayne’s World dream sequences. I was a time traveler on the Titanic, tasked with stealing the Hope Diamond. My job was to jump onto the ship, locate the rock, and get out as she was sinking so that any traces of my activities would be washed away (literally) when she went down.

I woke up, thinking, “I need to write this down five minutes ago.”

In a resource-starved dystopian future, what if the past is the primary source for power, technology, and materials? And what if the only way to safely retrieve these resources, without affecting the time line, was to jump back to the moment right before a disaster occurs so that the time traveler’s activities are easily ignored by the space time continuum?

Now, as much I’d love to ice Hitler, making fat stacks is a decent consolation prize. As I delved deeper into time travel profiteering, another idea from the darkest reaches of my psyche also crept to the top. This one wasn’t quite as romantic as Leo painting French girls.

I read an article about a South African photojournalist named Kevin Carter.  He took an iconic photo (warning: graphic) of a child during the Sudan Famine crawling toward an aid station. There was a vulture behind the child, just hopping along, waiting for him to die. At the time, Kevin thought it was his job to record the events, but not intervene. He took the picture and left. He won a Pulitzer and then, haunted by the things he saw, committed suicide a few months later. Some of the facts have been subsequently contested, but that was the version I read.

The more I explored the idea of these time travelers (or chronmen as I called them) jumping into the past to witness the last terrible moments of someone’s life, the more I saw Kevin Carters, people whose job gave them front row seats to terrible events but were unwilling to do anything about them. I began to wonder about that mental toll. How do they cope? What happens when they break?

In the end, the Big Idea for Time Salvager isn’t about time traveling or resources or saving the world (though the world does need saving). The Big Idea for Time Salvager is about coping, and how we deal with pain, sorrow, regret, and, hopefully, find the redemption Kevin Carter never did.

And, fuck it, we also kill some Nazis along the way.

Big idea Voltron, folks. We’ve formed the feet and legs; form arms and body; and you, dear reader, form the head. Let’s go, Voltron Force!


Time Salvager: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.


29 Comments on “The Big Idea: Wesley Chu”

  1. I’ve never read a Wesley Chu book before, but I will be reading this one.

  2. I’m Asian, so that has to count for extra Voltron points, right?

    [sarcasm]Oh man, not the race card…..[/sarcasm]

    Just mentioning Voltron earns extra Voltron points!

    Great pitch. Into my reading list it goes.

    Instead of Hitler, how about someone Whacking Marx and Engels? That would save over a hundred million innocent people easily! Including the ones killed by Hitler….

  3. Kage Baker’s “The Company” series also deals with time travelers recovering artifacts before they were destroyed.

  4. Why does everyone want to kill pre-Reich Hitler? He wasn’t such a bad guy. In fact he was a house-painter. So someone go a little further back in time and hire him to paint a house, and rec him to others, and bingo, you’ve got a happy Adolph who never goes into politics.

    Also, go VOLTRON!

  5. “But after all this time, and time-travel stories, what is the thing about time travel that can still make it fresh for readers?”

    Exactly. I will try to check this book out, resist the urge to steal the concept of Chronmen from you, and see how you do.

    @Sylvia McIvers I thought he wanted to be an artist and took the house painting for food-money. If he had gotten more encouragement in school, who knows!

  6. Like FL Transplant, this made me think of “Millenium”. I trust Wesley to spin this differently, though. It does, indeed, sound freaking cool. Adding to the Must Read list.

  7. But Adolphus Hitler did get whacked by time travelers, that’s how Adolf Hitler (who was fifth in line to replace him) got the job!

  8. You know you had me at killing Nazi’s everything else which also sounds interesting is gravy.

  9. That’s a great premise for a book! I haven’t read any of Chu’s other books, but when I was reading this article, I could hear his voice. Lol. He’s a regular on the Writing Excuses podcast. :)

  10. Sounds like great fun. Also the cover art is fantastic – who is the artist responsible?

  11. Connie Willis had her time travelers discovering they could remove artifacts from the past believed to be destroyed in disasters just before the disasters occurred. Of course, the important thing is not that a writer’s idea is brand new, never been used, but how well said writer puts his/her own spin on the idea – and Chu has me intrigued enough to read his book.

  12. This novel sounds a little like Kage Baker’s Company novels and stories except with a dystopian future instead of a utopian one, and perhaps a little of Kuttner and Moore’s Vintage Season (and a pinch of 12 Monkeys).

    Vin Miskell


  13. Have ordered my copy. :)

    BTW, the story of Kevin Carter, as well as several of his combat-photographer colleagues, is told in the South African drama THE BANG BANG CLUB (2010), available on Netflix (and other places). I don’t know enough about those events to know whether the movie is scrupulously accurate or takes huge liberties, but it was a powerful film–and I remember seeing, in news media, a number of the photos that Carter and his colleagues shoot during the course of the story (including the one Wesley links above, of the starving child).

  14. I was incredibly disappointed by Mr. Chu’s “The Lives of Tao,” which was previously a Big Idea here and sounded amazing, so I’ll definitely pass on any more of his work. And I agree with earlier commenters: my initial reaction to reading this particular Big Idea was that the late Kage Baker already dealt with this idea in the Company series, a series I very much love. No, thank you.

  15. Stephen Frys novel “Making History” deals with the idea that killing Hitler (or preventing his birth) could lead to someone even worse (or arguably more competent) filling the void.

    Whatever, on my ‘to read’ list, the focus on coping etc. sounds intriguing.

  16. Sounds fun, going on my too-read. I liked that Stephen Fry novel pretty well, GargG. I think when I read it I had no idea who Fry was and just picked it up after reading some drecky alternative history from Harry Harrison and thinking I wanted something like that which didn’t suck.

  17. Hmm, as this seems to be the place for TT recommendations I’d like to add mine; the Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor (not to be confused with *that* Jodi Taylor or even the other one). Rather like Willis (time travelling historians) mixed with some wonderful dark humour. And some actual moments of intense emotion.
    However the covers are terrible, they’re *NOT* romances.

  18. I started reading Lives of Tao because if I figured if I’m going to vote for Chu for best new writer above the puppy crowd I should give his book a shot. I was about 50 pages in when I told myself “yeah, I’m reading this entire trilogy.” I’m about a third of the way into the 2nd book and hoping to finish the third before I see him at Borderlands on the 18th but in any case I will be getting this book then. It sounds great.

  19. I also was introduced to Mr. Chu from The Lives of Tao trilogy. (I had the same experience mentioned above… 1/2 way through the first I bought book 2 and 3 on Kindle and WAS VERY HAPPY Chu seems to write much faster than GRRM so the Trilogy was already completed by the time I discovers it.)

    Looking forward to Time Salvager!

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