Lisa Goldstein has an incredible track record as a fantasy writer, including the award-winning The Red Magician and the beautiful collection Travelers in Magic. Now she’s written a science fiction book about time travel, Weighing Shadows—and it’s just as mythic and strange in its own way.
Without giving too much away, Weighing Shadows is about a woman named Ann, who’s sort of a paranoid uber-hacker who keeps to herself and holds down a terrible job. Until one day, Ann gets recruited to join a mysterious organization of time travelers called Transformations Incorporated. The company is actually run by people from the future, the 24th century in fact, but they need people from the early 21st century to go back in time to various points in history and make small changes.
The future world of 2327 is suffering from huge environmental problems, and the human race doesn’t have a terribly bright future—but making even tiny changes to the past can result in huge alterations to the future. So Ann and her colleagues are sent back on missions that are often as simple as cutting an axel on a cart, or moving a vase from one table to another, causing the future to be reshaped. Except that Ann quickly begins to suspect that her company’s agenda isn’t as benign as she’d been led to believe.
Oh, and this is a world where you can absolutely change the past, and there’s only one cohesive timeline—so whatever changes you make, you’re stuck with. (I always like that form of time travel, personally.)
There are a few things that make Weighing Shadows unique among time-travel books. First, the notion of someone from the present being recruited by people from the future to change the past is a nifty concept that opens up all sorts of questions about agendas, but also perspectives on the past. In some ways, the people of 2015 turn out to be more similar to the people of medieval Europe than we do to the people of 2327, but in other ways we’re much more like our descendants than our ancestors.
But also, the time periods that Ann visits provide an opportunity to show how much more complicated and multi-layered societies were in the past, including some civilizations that we think of in simplistic, brutal terms. Ann visits ancient Crete, which turns out to be a matriarchal civilization whose customs defy our ideas about monarchy and democracy. Similarly, trips to ancient Alexandria and medieval France reveal societies that are in constant flux, in which some elements of the society are surprisingly open and others are more repressive.
In Weighing Shadows, you discover that the reason why changing the past is so relatively easy is because societies are, in general, surprisingly easy to tip in one direction or another. Every society has elements that are pushing them down a more progressive or permissive path, alongside elements that are pushing in a more repressive direction. It’s this struggle that Ann finds herself possibly on the wrong side of, and the book takes an overtly feminist turn that may seem preachy to some readers. But the best moments in Weighing Shadows are downright creepy, as we get glimpses of what it looks like when the worst instincts of human nature end up holding sway.
Ann is a uniquely disaffected protagonist, who’s scarred by her terrible relationship with her mother and has problems with authority—and it’s fascinating to watch someone like that go back in time and try to pass unnoticed in various periods of history. She feels vividly drawn even when her circumstances are somewhat sketchy.
Much like Goldstein’s last book, The Uncertain Places, Weighing Shadows is written in a sort of exaggeratedly matter-of-fact, simple tone in which events just sort of happen, one after the other, with no pause to consider how strange they are. It reminds me a bit of the pointedly simple style of the last few Gene Wolfe books, to a similar effect.
The Uncertain Places was one of my favorite books by Goldstein, and Weighing Shadows isn’t quite as much fun—but it is a very unique spin on time travel, dystopia, and the abuse of power. Anybody who loves time travel stories and wonders about the ramifications of changing the past will get a huge kick out of Weighing Shadows.