Time-travel, secret agents and paradoxes – this book has all the classical ingredients of time-travel. But it is also a heart-warming story that speaks to the need we all have of staying in touch with those we love, know how they are doing, who they become as they go through life, sharing our life with them and just delighting in each others company.
Our hero is Kin, a former secret agent from the 22th century, whose job it was to capture criminals attempting to illigaly earn money on time-travel technology. On one mission, however, one such miscreant managed to damage Kin’s equipment, and Kin ends up stranded in San Fransisco anno 1996 without any means of notifying his bosses of his predicament. This is not only a personal disaster, but also a potentially the-end-of-time-disaster; Kin’s presence in the past, his interactions with other people could change the future he has come from, creating a massive grandfather-paradox (no need to explain this if you have read just a minuscule of sci-fi). The logical thing to do would be to avoid as much human contact as possible, keep as low key as possible and occupy as minimal place in society as possible. But, over time, Kin cannot help himself – he needs human contact! He starts builds a life in the past. He gets a job in IT, marries the witty and nerdy attorney Heather, and they have a wonderful daughter called Miranda.
Through the his 18-years of life in his past (or our present), Kin is aware that he is loosing memories. Apparently the human brain is not equipped to deal with time travel unless helped by medication not invented in the 20th and 21th centuries. So, as the years pass, Kin lose information on the technology and culture of the future, and he even forgets if he has family or friends in that period! All he is left with are vague impressions and general ideas, and any attempt at remembering brings him only blackouts, headaches, fainting spells and temporary loss of short-term memory. His wife and daughter are understandably alarmed by what appears to be Kin’s deteriorating mental health, and annoyed at their husband and father is refusing to seek medical help.
It is at this point that the Temporal Corruption Bureau (the TCB) finally locate Kin, and horrified at his reckless actions. They tell him that he must leave his life in 2014 immediately, before he damages history any further. They promise to not ‘eliminate’ Miranda and Heather on the condition that Kin goes with them voluntarily and never tries to contact his wife or daughter. Reluctantly Kin obeys their orders, hoping it will keep his loved ones safe.
In the future, Kin’s life does not become easy, since although he has been gone for two dacades, only two weeks have passed in the future: He must regain his memories and fit back into his circle of friends, continue his relationship with his fiancee whom he has not seen in 18 years. But he just cannot refrain from trying to find Heather and Miranda. It turns out that Heather passed away only months after Kin left, and his daughter ‘s life soon spiraled into a downwards trajectory which Kin becomes hellbent on changing. Defying his orders, Kin sets out to save his daughter’s life. But can he really keep his attempts secret from the agency? Can he help his daughter without creating a paradox? And what happens if the perceptive and intelligent Miranda begins to suspect that her father might not be the man she thought he was?
What is good a bout this book? Refreshingly, our hero is not white. His ethnicity is never explicitly stated, but it can be inferred by references to his hair and dark skin. It could be that Kin appears African, but, in my mind as I was reading, Kin is Asian, which is a conclusion I arrived at based on the author’s surname. So it is only an assumption and not a certainty. Anyway, non-white protagonists in this genre are sadly lacking and here we do have a different protagonist without his skin color being his problem or the main focus of his story arc.
As a gigantic time-travel fan, I loved the question asked by this book: how would time-travel impact one’s family life? I generally enjoy a time-travel book the most when it zooms in on how the dislocation brought on by time-travel or how the knowledge of the time-traveller affects his/her relationships with friends, family or love interests. The technology and specifics of time-travel might be fun thought experiments for the author, but is as boring as reading the phone-book, if you ask me. That is probably why I prefer the beginning of Here and There and Now (where we look at the consequences of Kin’s secrecy for his family) to the rest of the book (which is more about paradoxes).
Why did I not give this book four or five star-rating? Firstly, although I like a interpersonal focus in sci-fi, Chen makes a big point of Kin’s supposedly amazing visualization, memorization and combat skills, but these Jason Bournesque powers are never actually demonstrated to us, only talked about. In fact, Kin did not seem like a particularly good agent to me; basically only one of his plans work out and he needed a lot of help from others to com up with it.
Secondly, towards the end of the novel, Kin delivers tons of speeches about what matters in life and family, which became a bit much for me. Who says stuff like that in the kind of extreme emotional situation he is in? The author really did not need to give us readers so many clues to what he is trying to communicate. Perhaps he did not trust his own writing skills in this regard? If so, there is no need for that self-doubt, since the previous parts of the book are well-written and well-plotted.