In Search of Lost Time: A Robin Hood character steals life and memories rather than gold

In Search of Lost Time by Karen Heuler In Search of Lost Time by Karen Heuler fantasy book reviewsIn Search of Lost Time by Karen Heuler

Hildy, who’s been experiencing odd gaps in her awareness, is hit with the news that she has cancer of the Tempora, a (made-up) part of the brain where the body experiences time. Her chemotherapy has an odd side effect: Hildy can now see auras around people in the form of colorful mists and vapors. What’s more, she finds that she can pull away bits of aura from other people and inhale it. It gives her the feelings and memories from the person she took the bit of aura from. An old person has a thin aura that gives her a sense of duty and money worries; a younger person’s aura makes her feel exhilarated.

When she begins hanging around a playground to surreptitiously capture part of babies’ auras in jars, she’s confronted one day by a man who accuses her of stealing time. He informs her that there’s a market for stolen time; dying people who are down to their final days are anxious for whatever additional time they can get. But Hildy is taking that time ― and the associated memories ― away from others without their permission. If she’s only taking a bit, does it really harm them? And so Hildy gets sucked into a black market for stolen time, trying to deal not only with her own qualms but also with the limited and sometimes misleading information she gets from the buyers and sellers of other people’s time, and their demands for her to use her abilities to benefit them.

In Search of Lost Time (2017) takes an attention-grabbing concept and explores the ramifications of it, but does so in a somewhat rambling and disjointed way. There’s a heartfelt but disturbing scene with a group of cancer patients who have become aware of Hildy’s abilities, and beg her for any time they can get. But then Karen Heuler shifts back to the more ominous dealings with the sellers of stolen time, and we scarcely see the cancer patients again.

Heuler does develop an interesting association of various aura colors with certain emotions and memories. She tells the cancer group (who she thinks of as the baldies):

I’ve got some that I’m thinking might be about love; I’m not sure. A very pale blue. The darker blues are not as nice. There are some educational ones; always bright orange. Religion, usually in the deep purples. I don’t have all the nuances; the colors mix up a little, but this is cherry red, it seems cheerful to me.

In Search of Lost Time has its intriguing moments, but they’re overpowered by the uneven pacing and plot, and the novella is populated mostly by rather shallow and unpleasant characters with questionable moral views. The time sellers are a grasping, avaricious group, and Hildy herself has been engaged in a long-term affair with a married man, which leads her to a key decision point late in the story.

In the end the characters and story justify stealing time from those who are “given too much” so that it can be given to those who need it the most, as a deed of mercy that is more important than the justice of the act. Personally I just couldn’t buy into the worldview that it’s ever justified to play God, or Robin Hood, with people’s precious memories and lives without their consent.

Published July 1, 2017. After beginning chemo for a rare cancer, Hildy discovers an extraordinary talent—the ability to see and take other people’s time. She also discovers there’s an underground market for quality time. After all, who has enough time? The dying, especially, want to get more of it, but giving it to them means taking it from someone else. How moral is she? How will she juggle the black marketers’ strong-arm tactics and her own quandaries about stealing something so precious and vital that it can never be replaced?

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. Fascinating idea, although I don’t equate the past (and memories) with “time” in the sense of a commodity I can have more of. The ethical concerns are interesting, though. Who decides it’s okay to siphon off someone else’s memories, esp w/o consulting them?

    • My question exactly! I guess her idea is that if she only steals a few minutes (hours?) from any particular person, she can substantially help someone who needs it, but still. Also it just dawned on me that the author never really dealt with the fact that Hildy herself has cancer. So Hildy isn’t able to make a disinterested decision. If that was part of the author’s point, kudos, but if so it was too subtly made for me.

      It was a pretty weird story.

  2. Yes, the “temporal Kickstarter campaign” concept does need to be carefully thought out. It IS interesting that the MC has brain cancer! She is very much an interested party, or, as we used to say in by bureaucratic public service job, she is “conflicted,” meaning she has an inherent conflict of interest.

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