Time Was begins as an intriguing mystery, turns into a kind of time-travel tale and ends up as a sensitive and gracefully written romance stretching over decades. McDonald is admired for his detailed multicultural futures and intricate plotting, but he can be one of the field’s more elegant stylists as well ... surprisingly moving ending.
McDonald’s...gift for storytelling is on full display as he captures the emotional nuances of a decades-long love while exploring issues of military and scientific might and the state of the contemporary book industry. The very British references and regionalisms will appeal to even the most sf-averse Anglophiles, especially those who enjoy Netflix’s Black Mirror.
Time Was is a beautifully written piece of work, full of pathos and engaged in a slantwise dialogue with the power of words to affect and to endure, richly characterised and elegantly structured as so much of McDonald’s work is—but it still leaves me oddly cold. Cold, too, because one of the themes running through it is the tension between connection and loneliness, and Time Was concludes on tragedy revealed and on an immanent dislocation. It feels like a conclusion that presents connection as precarious and fleeting, loss as inevitable: a conclusion in keeping with Time Was’s melancholic mood, but not the emotional experience I really prefer. That said, it is very well put together, and gorgeously written.
There’s nothing strikingly original in the SF ideas McDonald presents here, which carry such an X-Files vibe that one of the characters even mentions it, but that’s not really the point. The mechanism by which these two time-unstuck lovers plot to keep in touch, involving a continent-wide network of used bookstores, is both ingenious and romantic in its own way—such bookstores, after all, have historically been among the most stable, unchanging business locations—at least until what the narrator calls our post-literate society. There is a rather surprising and effective twist toward the end of the tale that gives it an added dimension, but long before that it’s a paean to book-collecting detective work, to timeslip traditions of SF, and to the lyrical gay romance at its center (although McDonald pays relatively little attention to the difficulties Ben and Tom must have faced in keeping their relationship secret during a less tolerant era). Mostly, though, it’s one of the most purely beautiful pieces of writing McDonald has given us in years.
Veteran speculative author McDonald (the Luna series) entrances readers with this multigenerational novella of two time-crossed lovers who can only meet for brief moments separated by several years ... The ending’s predictability is washed away by beautiful writing that mixes Emmett’s excitement with melancholy ... Fans of science fiction who enjoy a dash of history and legend will savor this tender story.