Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Novella Project: The Past Trader by A. M. Donohoo

You think our stock market is heartless and destructive? You haven't seen anything yet

Financial investments are essentially bets. They're attempts to extract information from the future. Of course, being less that perfectly predictable, they offer equal measures of risk and reward. And it's the expectation of reward that can cause an investor to suspend their aversion to costs, including costs incurred nonconsensually by others. If an opportunity is identified that can double your wealth in Switzerland by investing in a business that will poison the water in Bolivia for generations, there is, regrettably, a type of human being who will happily push that button and watch millions suffer as they wait for the profit to materialize.

Ah, there's that pesky detail: waiting. So far, it's the only natural force that opposes human greed (there's also the material finitude of resources, but that hasn't stopped speculators yet). No matter your urgency, you must let time do its multiplying magic upon money. Finance relies on made-up numbers, but not even made-up numbers can cheat the rules of math.

But what if you could cheat? If all that your profit requires is time, why not put that time elsewhere so you can get your profit right now? In the world of A. M. Donohoo's novella The Past Trader, a method has been discovered to send capital to the past, changing the course of historical events so that the present is instantly changed to one where you're already richer. A new specialty in financial calculations has given rise to the profession of "lineweavers," experts who track the chains of consequences from possible interventions in the past.

The twist in this trick is that, even if you know every detail of the past, changing it produces a new series of events that you don't know, so the risk inherent to investment is not eliminated. Lineweavers are crucial to this business because there are potential butterfly effects in every alteration of history. While not perfect, their methods can discern which changes are probably riskier than others.

As often happens in the best science fiction, The Past Trader takes a real phenomenon and applies a magnifying lens to the truth that underlies it. In our real world, to modify nature in the name of human interests is already an aggressive assertion of control. To modify time would be an even more blatant instance of the same manipulation. If you agree that stepping in the way of the choices of past people, even to the point of replacing unknown numbers of human births, is an unjustifiable abuse of power, we have to ask: what justifies the regular way it's already being done all around us? Real-world finance already sacrifices future survivability for present gain; it's not too different to instead sacrifice the past. In the specific example used in the book, the protagonist has to weigh the chance to retroactively modify the recipe for napalm in order to make it more dangerous (with an astronomically lucrative payoff) against the cost in human misery that will result —or rather, would already have resulted— from a more lethal Vietnam War.

Real-world investors already use twisted mental gymnastics to avoid taking responsibility for the suffering they cause. It's got to be even more convenient for investors to offload that suffering onto the past, where they don't have to see it, where it's already done, where they can pretend there's nothing that can be done about it. If economic theory advises against caring about sunk costs, time travel adds a perverse incentive to take any cost you want to stop caring about and turn it into a sunk cost.

Unfortunately, The Past Trader doesn't give these ideas enough development. The plot is more complicated than it needs to be, adding numerous globe-trotting mini-quests that are there only so that the protagonist can finally have one key conversation with the lineweaver who calculated the true costs of the napalm trade opportunity. In these travels we meet a few minor characters of a more mystical disposition, who give the protagonist vague lessons on the immensity of time in Hinduism or the timeless realm of Australian Aboriginal religions. These concepts have deeply meaningful ties to the themes of the book, but they're merely namedropped, not given any additional thought in the course of the story. The fact that the lineweaver is apparently a believer in Islam, where human choice is viewed as always limited by divine will, could have been an interesting counterpoint that the author didn't take advantage of.

The space that the book doesn't dedicate to further exploration of its themes is instead given to a parallel plot about foreign soldiers fighting against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a conflict that is briefly implied to change for the worse as a result of the protagonist's eventual choice to try for a better past. The addition of this secondary storyline lets the author illustrate the indirect repercussions of the hubris of past trading, but its resolution is left undercooked, and the chapters that precede it are inserted in between the main plot with little care for ease of pacing.

The Past Trader has a fascinating premise on its hands, but not enough space to use all its potential. A prose author needs to develop a good nose for which stories are a good fit for the novella format, and this one isn't. Either a short story focusing on the protagonist's ethical conundrum, minus the globe-trotting and the mystical notions of time that the author does nothing with anyway, or a full novel with extended discussion of world-spanning alterations and the outrageous ways time travel would help stock traders keep washing their hands off externalities, would have been a more satisfying read.

Despite these problems, The Past Trader is still sufficiently thought-provoking to merit your consideration. It's an effective allegory for the hunger for immediate gratification that has taken over our economy, the increasingly barefaced excuses invented to ignore the real suffering of real people, and the rottenness that can grow inside a well-intentioned person placed in the position to make that kind of choice.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

Reference: Donohoo, A. M. The Past Trader [Ambuscade House, 2023].

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.