Written by Wesley Chu
My job as a novelist requires that I write books. Inspiration be damned. It’s great to have inspiration, but it’s not a job requirement.
That said, storytelling is my only worthy contribution to society. I’m basically unemployable. I have resigned myself to the fact that in the zombie apocalypse, I’m the guy they’ll use as a decoy while the doctor, soldier, farmer, lawyer, and Labrador retriever escape to safety.
It is no surprise, however, that I am often asked “What’s the inspiration for your book?”
Whenever I see that question, my brain melts. Just a little. The honest answer is I want to eat and pay my mortgage and my dog needs a new sweater. Part of that statement is a lie; Airedale Terriers never need sweaters. Remember that, folks. Airedales wearing sweaters have poser parents.
However, in the case of Time Salvager, I’m going to make an exception. I love telling this book’s origin story because it comes from an experience that changed my life.
I warn you, it’s kind of sad.
The idea came from an article I read about a South African photo-journalist named Kevin Carter. He took a very iconic photo (warning: graphic) of a child in the Sudan Famine crawling toward an aid station. There’s 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 to intervene. He took the picture and left. He won a Pulitzer for that photograph and then committed suicide a few months later. Some of the facts have been subsequently contested, but that was the version I read at the time.
It’s the kind of story that stays with you. Sometime later, I dreamt that I was a time traveler on the Titanic. I had jumped in a few days prior and my mission was to steal the Hope Diamond. I was supposed to steal the diamond just as the ship was sinking, so that all traces of my activities would be washed away by the disaster. In the dream, I spent days interacting and befriending the crew and passengers as I tried to locate the diamond, knowing full well they were all doomed to die when the ship sank. They were all dead-people walking.
But, it wasn’t my job to intervene.
And I didn’t.
I woke up right as the ship sank (not sure if I ever found the diamond), knowing all those people were going to die and I couldn’t do anything to help them. I experienced an overwhelming sense of sadness. It was a short jump from there to Time Salvager. Jumping back in time, before disasters, to retrieve important items, seemed like a great use of time travel without actually changing history.
I knew there were costs though. There had to be. Not the cost to society, or to the laws of energy, or to the integrity of the timeline, but the cost to the person who had to watch and observe and do nothing. Watching and being unable to help had to be suffocating and traumatic. I knew then that I had questions that needed to be answered.
What were those emotional and mental costs?
What happens when those costs become too great and the time traveler decides to intervene?
What happens when the time laws are broken?
They’re questions I had to answer for myself, to give me peace. I hope you want to know the answers as much as I did.