This is How You Lose a Time War – Letter as Time Travel?

By Will Dawson

Edited by Jon McGregor and Kristin Schanke

‘There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? I imagine you laughing at my little joke; I imagine you groaning; I imagine you throwing my words away. Do I have you still? Do I address empty air and the flies that will eat this carcass? You could leave me for five years, you could return never – and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.’

– from ‘This is How You Lose a Time War,’ by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

On my desk, there sits a postcard.

It is stiff, newish, but aspiring to look older with a faux little stamp in the top left-hand corner. On the front, it depicts a view of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, that beautiful 4th century church turned 15th century mosque turned 20th century museum turned 21st century mosque. Reverse it, and there is a quick message from my brother, and a retro foreign stamp. A little picture of a VW kombi-camper on the bottom. The hallmarks of the Englishman abroad.

Our family social media chat is filled with updates about his trip, and others. Advancing in years, we are a family of travellers. It is a miracle of modern technology that my brother can, in an instant, tell us where he is, what he has been doing, about local dances, and even that he is safe from a recent terrorist attack – but in a matter of days, his messages are rubbing shoulders with Monuments Valley. It takes dedicated scrolling to find it again. It is evanescent, gone, submerged for all save internet historians, family sentimentalists, and the eternally bored.

But this postcard remains, sitting there, from a few weeks ago.

So one must ask oneself – sci fi TARDISes and Wellsian machines be damned – are letters a form of time travel?

This is How You Lose a Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstoneis a Hugo Award-winning science fiction novella from 2019. (2019!  A date before covid, sitting in the gloomy 20s, seems like a time travelling journey in itself.) ‘Holy shit that was good’ says a review on the back, and it is certainly worth a read in its own right. It is the story of two secret agents, working for two multiversal agencies – Red for the technocractic Agency, Blue for the biological Garden – as they clash across the multiverses to influence the courses of history. They come to contact each other through letters. Gradually, this moves from the banter of two friendly rivals to something deeper.

The process of time travel itself is generally kept off stage, and the characters are generally disguised. As such, the only way they even see each other, for most of the story, is through letters. Encoded letters, dead drops, like any good spy story. The letters, however, are mostly anything but pen and ink; as elite agents of a futuristic civilization, they can be far more creative. Some of my favourites include:

-carved into a piece of cod devoured by an animal leading to the text appearing in the animal’s fur

-buried into the heart of a tree, the writing formed of its rings

-in the whorls and flows of lava on a dying Atlantis

-encoded into the act of drinking a cup of tea

-and, at last, the simple tradition of using a quill and ink.

As a result of the insecurity of delivery and the multiversal ‘distances’ characters have to travel, they too often receive messages at long intervals. Both characters can access, and use, various means of instantaneous communication, but not to talk to each other. The form of the letter therefore offers them a valuable – and novel – tool.

In writing letters, they write as they are in a specific time and space. (Or, perhaps, how they want to present themselves.) This is inherently more limiting than, to quote the modern office, ‘a simple email’, so they pour themselves into what they write. Their hopes, their anxieties, their banter, their lives. They experiment with form, coloured seals, scented inks, even making use of an (alternate reality) Victorian letter writing guide to brush up their craft. They sling pop culture quotes, and discuss their childhoods. They ask each other about their lives, their peoples.

The result is a uniquely personal, uniquely vulnerable form of message, that opens them up absolutely to one another. It is ‘a knife at my neck’ – ‘here be dragons’ lie beyond – but they write all the same. They leave these messages, these summations of their thoughts and minds, for each other to find across the cosmos. (And as we read them in turn, our perception of the characters is formed and developed by the letters.)

However, unlike actual time travel, letters – for all their advantages of form – are open to misinterpretation. There is no substitute for a meeting in person, even across time and space. As one of them writes, based on their time in the captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots, the single word ‘sincerity’ can hide many meanings. And this misinterpretation of a letter will have dire consequences.

A letter is no Wellsian machine; but in leaving a physical message for each other, the characters leave pieces of themselves, and other objects. They physically store the letters in their bodies, and these will come to affect the plot of the story at large.

In time, I will probably put the postcard away.

I will move out, and it will get lost in packing. Or else I will pin it to my noticeboard at home, and the message will fade into antiquity. (The card falls over often enough as is.)

But until then, it affords me a brief, limited snapshot into the past – a few weeks, months, years. It is, in that sense, time travel.

Why not experiment with a little time travel yourself, and write a letter to someone else’s future today? Perhaps you could even write to us….?

The Letters Page team are back in the office, and ready to read your real letters again. We publish stories, essays, poems, memoir, reportage, criticism, recipes, travelogue, and any hybrid forms, so long as they come to us in the form of a letter. We are looking for writers of all nationalities and ages, both established and emerging.

Your letter must be sent in the post, to :

The Letters Page, School of English, University of Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK.

See our submissions page for more information.

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