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‘The Paradox Hotel’ is an inventive but ultimately frustrating time-travel novel

Rob Hart’s new novel, The Paradox Hotel, rests on a brilliant concept: a murder set in a hotel for time travelers, an idea that should have Netflix execs salivating. Unfortunately, given literally all of history to play with, the book doesn’t go far enough, falling short of its compelling premise.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Set 50 years from now, the Paradox Hotel is a way-station for people as they embark on the ultimate in tourism: trips to see dinosaurs up close, walk the streets of ancient Rome, or watch the battle of Normandy as it happened. It’s essentially an airport hotel where people wait for their jaunt to the Cretaceous or the Napoleonic era.

This seems to be the only way humanity uses time travel, because it’s so hideously expensive that only trillionaires can afford it. The government runs the Paradox, but it’s a luxury resort that caters exclusively to the very richest people on the planet.

In its actual details, however, the hotel doesn’t sound very upscale. The coffee urn is always empty; the lobby is an atrium a “hundred feet high;” it has popcorn ceilings in the hallways. I’ve stayed in more impressive Embassy Suites.

Paradox Hotel
‘The Paradox Hotel,’ by Rob Hart (Ballantine Books).

We see all this through the eyes of January Cole, our narrator and the head of hotel security. She insults her bosses and the hotel’s wealthy clients, wears ripped jeans,  calls her subordinate “kid,” and tells people that she will spend the rest of her life ruining the rest of theirs.

In short, January is one of those take-no-shit mavericks who’d never occupy a position of responsibility at any place as mind-bogglingly important as the Paradox. She’s supposed to be stellar at her job, but there’s little evidence for that.

To be fair, January is dying. She’s spent too long too close to the time engines, traveling into the past in her former job as a Time Enforcement Agent—someone who keeps people from messing with history. They made her head of hotel security as a reward for past service. Now her brain is collapsing under the weight of all that chronology. She lives moments from her past and future in what look like tiny seizures to the people around her. She could be standing in the hotel’s lobby, but she’s looking at glimpses from her childhood or from events that haven’t happened yet.

January hides her increasing disability because it’s the only way she can see Mena, her now-dead lover, again. These stolen minutes are all January lives for, and, for her, they’re worth dying.

Then January’s flash-forwards show her the death of a visitor to the hotel, and she’s determined to solve the murder before it happens.

The arrival of four bidders in an auction to determine who will be the Paradox’s new owner complicates matters. January gets visions of attempts on their lives, and ghost echoes of plots and conspiracies. Plus there are some baby velociraptors running around who got loose from an illegal dinosaur smuggler.

This is where some clear rules for time travel would help a lot. But Hart never really explains how any of this works. At first, he describes time as a block of all possible events happening at once, and humans live their lives on a straight line through it, unable to perceive anything more because of our limited perspective. The past is the past, unchangeable even with time travel. It already happened, so you can only witness it.

Except when you can, maybe. Time travel, in this world, does not have the math-like precision of Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, or Sean Ferrell’s The Man in the Empty Suit, or the stories of Ted Chiang. Even Avengers: Endgame, which January quotes as a punchline several times—had a clearer explanation for its time-heist.

History is supposed to be fixed, but January spent her earlier career stopping people from altering the timestream by, say, rescuing Hitler. Tourists can bring things back from the past — like dinosaur eggs — but no people have ever hitched a ride with them, or at least not that the book ever mentions.

The design specs for January’s present, which is supposed to be our future, are a little sketchy as well. Everyone still carries phones. Tech-bros and rich people are still instantly recognizable by their outfits. Medicine does not yet have a cure for peanut allergies. Hart gives climate change a fleeting mention and otherwise ignores it. Some guests are angry at the idea of a nonbinary desk clerk. It’s almost as if nothing has changed in five decades.

January keeps plowing forward, despite a few half-hearted attempts by her boss to sideline her. (It’s a good measure of how lax security is at the Paradox that January walks around free even after she shows that she’s a danger to herself and others.) Nobody can see the murder victim except her — he seems to be a symptom of her disease — and even in an age of limitless surveillance, he has no name or ID. Her AI-drone assistant — a kind of floating Alexa, which hovers constantly over her shoulder — turns into an idiot ball when asked any useful question, including, “Who is that guy?”

There are other glitches to keep the plot moving—security cameras go down, the power fails, doors unlock, someone tampers with January’s meds—but aside from the velociraptors running wild, not much happens for long stretches.

Which is frustrating, given Hart’s considerable skills. His previous novel, The Warehouse, took place inside the operations center of a dystopian Amazon-like corporation, which kept its employees housed in tiny dorm rooms, running their lives for the optimum good of the company. Hart made that claustrophobic setting work, and used it as a lens to look at the world which allowed such a future to exist.

That made The Paradox Hotel one of my most anticipated books of 2022—a year which sounds like science fiction itself—and yet, it remains painfully cautious.

Rather than an exploration of all the possibilities of a hotel for time-travelers, we get January reliving the trauma of Mena’s death, over and over, a punishment she thinks is her reward. But again, the fiddly rules of the book make her insistence on staying at the hotel seem arbitrary. There is nothing that says she can only see Mena if she’s physically inside the Paradox. She relives other moments without being anywhere near those actual locations.

It does not help that January is a bully, cruel and insulting to the people who show an inexplicable tolerance for her dickishness. Hart tries to use her flashbacks to her time with her lover—who the other hotel staffers genuinely loved—as a way to make her seem sympathetic. Instead, they they just make Mena seem like that friend who’s dating a huge asshole while everyone else suffers.

January’s murder mystery turns out to be only a clue to the larger crime of what’s actually happening in the Paradox. There is an action-packed sprint to the climax, but it’s unclear if anything January does makes a difference, or if time was always going to proceed along this course.

Maybe that’s the moral of the Paradox Hotel: everyone there is stuck in a future where the mistakes of the past get repeated over and over. Which makes it a strangely fitting tale for our own time.

(Ballantine, February 22, 2022)

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Christopher Farnsworth

Chris Farnsworth is the author of six novels, including Flashmob (one of PW’s Best Books of 2017), Killfile, and The President's Vampire. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Awl, E! Online, the Washington Monthly and the New Republic. He's also written screenplays and comic books.

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