GeekNights Book Club - GeekNights Book Club: This Is How You Lose the Time War

Tonight on the GeekNights Book Club, we discuss This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It's short and worth a read, but it's not going to blow your mind like some people on the Internet are saying (unless you haven't read much science fiction). A little Singularity, a little Instrumentality, and a story told partially as an epistolary.

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It’s amazing how much Rym can convince himself is contained in a story like this, and that it’s intentionally raising questions about whatever. There really isn’t anything there, everything you think is interesting is mere set dressing. Nothing was intended beyond a love story, and all the interviews I’ve read with the authors back that up.

But I’m glad Rym can entertain himself by being reminded of more complex stories.

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Did I not say repeatedly that I was not sure if the authors intended many of those ideas?

God is dead.

Did we also not both say that the book did not raise questions about them particularly well regardless of that intent, to the point that it did not cause even a moment of pause or novel reflection?

I feel like we were appropriately harsh on the book’s simplicity while also mining it for meaning in the way all good lit crit attempts.

Emphases added. A little is not a lot. But there is not zero of this in the work. It is described rather than interrogated, it is simple, and it is largely environmental, but it is there.

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No, I understood all that from the podcast. You were totally clear. I wanted there to be anything like that in the book too! And after being so underwhelmed, I went looking for interviews with the authors to see if there was anything to it, and they seemed to have zero interest in it.

In the end, it’s like the listing of pop culture references. Proper nouns that bring something to mind, but only if you already know it, and then you the reader have to do all the heavy lifting anyway. In this case, list some already-known science fictiony tropes, and then if you the reader already know what they mean, and have attachment to them, you can do the heavy lifting yourself and find questions to ask.

If the author is dead, this novel does about as good a job making you think of heavy science fiction tropes as clicking on random TV Tropes articles!

I think it wants to work as a romance story, like Scott said, and if it works on that level it has done enough. Everything doesn’t have to be everything.

Okay, I got to the end of the podcast and the next book pick!

If you’re wondering why all these books are recommended by the authors of the other books, it’s because a quirk of science fiction/fantasy writers’ scene in north america, not particularly because of the quality of the work (though I think both Gideon the Ninth and All Systems Red are worth a read).

There are two annual workshops for aspiring writers called Clarion and Clarion West. They have good reputations, not because you’ll become a noticeably better writer compared to someone who doesn’t go, but because they are well recognised as a fast-track into a very specific and quite powerful in-group of writers and editors.

The setup isn’t exactly a scam, but the incentives are all messed up (from someone looking in from the outside).

You pay $5,000 for a six week workshop, and “in order to foster the group bonding that is part of the Clarion experience, it is mandatory that students reside in Clarion housing.”

As in, you pay the money and have six weeks to spare (which of course makes it quite inaccessible to anyone not already pretty wealthy), and you’re part of the MANDATORY group bonding, with both other workshop participants and the workshop leaders.

The next step is that workshop leaders are then incentivised to give recommendations to books written by previous students who have paid them money, because of course they are!

And once an author gains any success, it’s likely they will be invited back to Clarion as a workshop instructor, where they are paid $$$$.

Not quite a ponzi scheme, but echoes of such, and certainly a self-perpetuating clique of writers who vote for each other in the awards and go on writing retreats together.

And you can join this group for just 6 weeks and $5,000! It’s actually a very good deal!

A lot of recent Geeknights Bookclub picks are from Clarion authors (Binti, Broken Earth, This Is How You Lose the Time War, All Systems Red, The City We Became).

Knowing this setup explains a lot about the current state of science fiction by (mostly) north american writers, both positive and negative.


Wow, I had heard of Clarion before, but had no idea what it was or thought to look it up.

You definitely make it sound suspicious, but at the same time, the books largely have merit. Whatever they are teaching there must be for real. If I was a liberal arts university, I would be sending all my creative writing and literature professors there. $5k each is a reasonable price for a major university to pay to get them to steal whatever Clarion’s writing methods are.

Also, this may be feeding the beast, but if there are great writers who can’t go to Clarion because of affordability, scholarships could work well to even the scales.

I didn’t mean to infer it is suspicious. They are totally open that it is a group bonding opportunity, and everyone knows the benefits of “Clarion Alum” in a bio.

As in, the first paragraph of text about the workshop isn’t about what you will learn or who will be teaching, but it’s the line I quoted before:

In order to foster the group bonding that is part of the Clarion experience, it is mandatory that students reside in Clarion housing.

The bonding is the point. The connection building is the point.

College professors don’t need to go to Clarion, because they aren’t aspiring writers who want to build connections with past and (if all goes to plan) future Nebula award winners.

The writing knowledge is available elsewhere. The networking and group bonding is what you’re paying $5,000 and six weeks to get.

If everyone is clear eyed about this, it’s not suspicious. But like I said, it’s a little bit ponzi-scheme-adjacent for my tastes.

Also “most scholarships are in the range of $500-$1500” so still not particularly accessible if it still takes up six weeks and $3,500.


Hmm. I wonder if I can do a similar thing for podcasting to create a powerful self-promoting in-group.

It kind of rhymes with college, at least in the US.

There have been several attempts at such things in podcasting, but they’ve all been hustle-culture scams.

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You know me, I would be up-front about it. At the opening ceremonies I’d be like hey everyone. There’s this thing called Clarion. This is how it works. We are explicitly trying to copy it. If we all follow through, we all stand to mutually benefit.


I read the book some months ago. I could barely get through it.

I thought Rym and Scott were appropriately tough on it in the episode, despite calling it a top-tier book.

I think the book suffers from the two-author situation. Supposedly they just mailed each other chapters, and then responded in kind. Surely they sketched out the overall story together…? I wonder how much though.

Just caught up with the previous episode and Scott says “let’s have a more substantial book for the next one, not a short story like Binti or How You Lose the Time War…”

Bad news! Per Audible audiobook runtimes:

Binti: 2 hrs and 30 mins

This Is How You Lose the Time War: 4 hrs and 16 mins

All Systems Red: 3 hrs and 17 mins

You picked another short story/novella.

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Maybe we should read the whole series, lol.

Is the same thing happening in the book world as the music world? Making things shorter to take advantage of the digital economy?

Strangely enough, movies are going the opposite direction, getting longer.

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Gideon is 17 hours per audible.

If there’s one thing good about The Algorithm at Netflix, it’s that a lot of their stuff clocks in at like an hour 35.

Murderbot was the first series that kinda set a new precedent in modern science fiction: publish novellas and charge the same price as a full novel at release (or a full audible credit), backed up with the same marketing and publicity as a full novel.

It worked!

The first four novellas were a big success, despite being so short, and Martha Wells could
Keep pumping them out every six months or so. They kept winning awards for best novella too.

I’d say read the first four stories, as they are all mostly entertaining.

Don’t read the fifth story. It is a full length novel, but is garbage and even if it wasn’t, the content is just like three novellas smushed together and drawn out.

Unsurprisingly, the garbage fifth story won the Hugo and the Nebula for best novel, based purely on the fact it was a beloved series that so far nobody could vote for in the novel category, and so everyone voted for it at their first chance… despite it being by far the weakest entry into the series.

The whole project feels like the most cynical play ever, but it mostly worked, and I kinda resent what new authors are now trying to do to emulate the success with their own “cozy science fiction” novella series.

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To be fair, novels being broken up into parts is how it’s been in Japan and other places for quite some time. e.g.: When we buy 1Q84, it’s one big book. The original release was 3 volumes. At first only two got released. The third one got published a year later.

1830’s: Chuck Dickens starts writing some serials you’ve maybe heard of.

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Yeah, but a lot of those much older European serials were published in magazines or journals alongside other works. Some were published just a chapter or two at a time, more similar to floppy comic books.

Funnily enough, I think releasing one novella at a time may have begun with the first novel, The Tale of Genji! That probably explains why Japan continues to publish novels in that fashion to this day.