Agent Pierce murdered his own grandfather to join Stasis, the covert organization which works outside of time to reseed the Earth with humans every time they’re about to make themselves extinct. Pierce considers himself a loyal agent, and he didn’t even realize that there is a group that works in Opposition to Stasis — he’s only in training. So, why is someone trying to assassinate him?
Palimpsest follows Agent Pierce from initiation, through his twenty years of training, to his gruesome graduation ceremony, and onto his assignments as a new agent. The segments involving Pierce’s progress are written in both second and third person and are occasionally interrupted by chapters of Powerpoint-style lectures which show glimpses of alternate histories of our universe and describe the way the galaxy was restructured so that it could last for trillions of years.
It’s easy to see why Palimpsest won the Hugo Award for best novella in 2010. First of all, it’s beautifully written. This comes from “Slide 6”:
Six hundred and fifty million years later, the outlines of Earth’s new continents glow by night like a neon diadem against the darkness, shouting consciousness at the sky in a blare of radio-wavelength emissions as loud as a star.
And how can you not admire this?:
The day after he murdered himself in cold blood, Agent Pierce received an urgent summons to attend a meeting in the late nineteenth century.
You’d be tempted to think that time-travel, with its accompanying paradoxes, is a well-worn theme, and Palimpsest does re-visit some of the age-old questions, but it’s got some fresh and fascinating questions to ask, too: If a historical event is written over, which history is the correct one? (This is where the title “Palimpsest” comes from.) Is it ethical to decide who you want to be and then go back in time to remake yourself? What happens when a powerful organization evolves so that it has abandoned its original purpose and made itself its reason for being? What is the best way to make sure that the human species survives?
Pierce’s predicaments, and the issues he deals with, are exciting, but the story was so quick, sketchy, and subtle, and it jumps around so much, that I rarely had more than a tentative grasp on what was going on at any moment. I had to do a lot of rereading to make sure I knew what was happening, though I admit that I have rarely enjoyed being lost as much as I did here, and Stross was likely going for that effect. The characters, including Pierce himself, are also sketchily drawn, making it hard to connect with them. Pierce, who was just as bewildered as me, was mostly a passive character pushed along by his strange circumstances. Only at the end did he seem to seriously consider what he might do to affect his world (again, this was probably intentional).
In his afterword, Charles Stross says “Palimpsest wanted to be a novel. It really, really wanted to be a novel. Maybe it will be, someday.” I agree: Palimpsest wants to be a novel. It needs to be a novel. I want it to be a novel. This superb story deserves much more space and time (so to speak).