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Flux coverTime travel has deep roots in speculative fiction on both the screen and the page: but from the 1989 movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to the more recent novel This Is How You Lose the Time War, popular media has increasingly used the time travel trope as a way for our protagonists to fix their mistakes by going back into the past. In the previous examples, where time travel is framed as a solution to our protagonists’ problems (Bill and Ted) or simply part of the job (Time War). In Flux by Jinwoo Chong, however, time travel is both our protagonist Brandon’s job and a solution for his fixation on the past; but it also has the unfortunate side effect of causing him a great deal of pain. And in a twist more akin to the universe-jumping in Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), which similarly features an Asian American protagonist and intra-family tension, where Time War’s protagonists delight in hopping between different time periods and settings, Brandon in Flux cannot wait to escape the cycle of suffering from mental and physical pain brought on by time travel.

In Flux, Chong presents us with three POV characters: Brandon is a twenty-eight-year-old, recently laid-off marketer for the fictional Metropol magazine, which has been sold to another corporation and is looking to downsize; Bo is a seven-year-old struggling with the recent loss of his mother, and the final POV character is Blue, who is forty-eight, divorced, and taping a documentary about his role in the downfall of Flux Corporation decades priori, from which the title of the novel is derived. Brandon is the connecting link between the three POV characters: after running into a Flux Corporation executive in an elevator, he gets a new job at the company, which claims to have developed a new technology which can create batteries that run forever. Brandon discovers, however, that the company’s most innovative product turns out to be not batteries but something much more insidious—time travel.

Io Emsworth, the CEO of Flux Corporation, is an Elizabeth Holmes-like figure who wholeheartedly believes in the batteries’ efficacy even as Lev (the executive who hires Brandon) doesn’t. She is a wunderkind, a Stanford dropout who has the charisma to woo investors to part with their money and keep Flux going, despite her unrealistic claims regarding their product. Every conference room has a pinup of Emsworth on the wall, and when Emsworth and Brandon interact she feels more like a composite picture of tech executives than a fully-fledged person, spouting cryptic one-liners and extolling her company’s product. The real power in Flux Corporation, however, seems to lie in the hands of Lev, whom Blue encounters two decades later and has manipulated his way to having his own cushy apartment despite being in jail for his role in causing the deaths of Flux Corporation employees. Lev throws around influence and money in his attempts to win over Brandon, at one point hiring escorts and paying for a party at a gay club to celebrate the latter’s birthday. Lev is the real villain of the novel, the force that keeps Brandon trapped and repeatedly traveling through time, with almost Buddhist undertones to his continual suffering.

Grief is central, though, to all three POV characters’ experiences. Bo’s tangible recent loss of his mother leads him to lash out at his brother. Blue has lost everything at the hands of the Flux Corporation and is looking to use the documentary he’s in to advance his personal vendetta. And Brandon mourns the ability to be recognized as Korean by most non-Koreans, and laments that, because he can’t speak Korean anymore, he is often only recognized as his white father’s son. Yet the deep hole of tunnel vision that grief can create is the main reason Lev gives for why he is the ideal candidate for the time-travelling job: his single-mindedness over his loss forces him to relieve the worst moments of his life over and over again.

Flux, then, is a very character-driven novel, and Brandon’s arc drives the book forward. A major part of that arc lies in his inability to face his problems. He avoids his family at all costs; he is estranged from his father and his brother and has been for many years at the start of the novel. Brandon’s father is suffering from increasingly severe dementia and needs more specialized care, and his brother has done time in prison but has been trying to do his best to take care of their father. In addition, Brandon is both half-Korean and bisexual, and his in-betweenness and intersectional identity are at times a source of pain. He is a huge fan of Raider, a fictional police procedural from the 1980s which Lev says is “the most racist fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my life … does nobody remember the shit you could get away with in 1985?” But at the time the series depicted Asian communities and Asian Americans in a less stereotypical way than other shows. When abuse allegations surface against Antonin Haubert, the lead actor of Raider, however, Brandon loses one more thing that he loves. He spends much of the beginning of the book grasping at straws, trying to find something redeemable about Haubert, as a diehard fan who happens to be queer and Asian American:

There were no queers on Raider, not that I remember. You were a gruff straight boy prone to violence and a single word doing the work of ten, so maybe you would have looked at us curled together in my bed and felt rage or fear—whatever it is that moves people like the founder of Chick-fil-A or the Alabama State Senate to argue extermination. But I hoped you wouldn’t.

Brandon’s experience reflects the reality that fans struggle to separate a piece of beloved media and the person who created it, a notorious example of which is—of course—the Harry Potter franchise. The novel itself opens with Raider”—a reflection of how important Haubert and Raider are to Brandon. [1] Despite Haubert’s wrongdoings, Brandon holds onto him as the ideal figure of what a man should be. The repeated references to Raider episodes and their lead actor—who is a stand-in for the ideal American man despite being French—are reminiscent of Charles Yu’s 2020 novel Interior Chinatown, a non-speculative novel about depictions of Asian Americans in media which is in screenplay form and told from the perspective of Willis Huang, a Taiwanese American actor habituated to playing minor Asian characters and hoping someday to ascend to the Kung Fu Hero, the pinnacle of male Asian roles in Hollywood movies. Unlike Yu, who uses satire to address the topic of Asian American media representation, Chong treats the matter more seriously. Brandon often addresses Haubert in his thoughts directly as “you,” wondering what Haubert would think of him and his current life problems.

Chong, who is Korean American, comments on the overindexing of Chinese characters on screen. Brandon notes that the Raider protagonist’s sidekick, Moto, is supposed to be from Chinatown but is portrayed by a Vietnamese American child actor from the Bay Area, who is forced to fake an accent for the privilege of being on television. As Min comments when Raider comes up in conversation with Brandon:

“Asian representation, and all that. And maybe people say they’re still just one-off, supporting characters and whatever, and yeah, by modern standards a lot of it is still pretty insensitive. But somebody had to take the first step, and it was them, and I’m proud of that. Look at me, not even Chinese, and proud.”

Like other Asian American writers, then, Chong touches on loss of language and issues of diaspora. When Blue’s daughter brings home a boyfriend from college whose family is Czech, and who taught him their language, the boyfriend criticizes Blue and his ex-wife for not teaching their own daughter Korean. When his ex-wife tells the boyfriend that it was a purposeful decision, Blue jokes, “We didn’t want her to confuse herself with a fob” [2]. When the boyfriend challenges this choice, Blue responds that: “you might be saying, none of us is really Asian. Is that what you mean?” She follows up with that assertion with: “The assumption there being, we don’t know how to operate in this country. How to be Asian and American. How to … what? Raise our kids?”

Some first-generation immigrants make the conscious choice not to teach their children their language to speed up assimilation, but Chong presents this dilemma as specific to the second generation and beyond. How much cultural heritage is tied up in a language in which they likely aren’t themselves fluent, and is not passing down that partial knowledge a bad decision for their children? Either way, the parents face criticism. Flux doesn’t offer an easy answer to this question, just the observation that language is often tied to memories of specific people, and when they are gone, the language is gone, too.

Re-experiencing memories of his family and the death of his mother, whose passing took Brandon’s main connection to being Korean from him, pushes Brandon to confront these issues in his day-to-day life as he slowly pieces together what is happening to him in a detective-novel fashion. Brandon undergoes time travel every day after arriving for his job at Flux Corporation. He doesn’t realize what is going on at first, since he is simply told that all he needs to do is show up and dream on one of the beds in the company office while hooked up to machines; but as he re-experiences his memories of his childhood, he is forced to face everything he has lost over and over again. In Raider, the only Asian characters were background characters and sidekicks, but the mental strain of repeated time travel ends up forcing Brandon to make active choices about what to do with his past, his family in the present, his potential love interest (who happens to be Korean American), his love of Raider, and his job at Flux Corporation.

Flux takes the classic time-travel story and the detective story and mashes them up to create something wholly original, something that lives in between genres in the same way that its queer, biracial Asian American protagonist navigates the world. This novel earns its place as a work of speculative fiction, queer fiction, and contemporary Asian American fiction. As Flux is Jinwoo Chong’s debut, I look forward to reading whatever he comes up with next.


[1] “Your line was always: ‘give me a reason.’ Always. And forget the fact that it was and continues to be the cheesiest TV-pilot-gravel-voiced-detective-mystery catchphrase ever written.” [return]

[2] Fob, or Fresh Off the Boat, is a sometimes derogatory Asian American slang term for a recent immigrant. It was popularized by the Eddie Huang memoir and its TV show adaptation of the same name. [return]

Tina S. Zhu writes from her dining table in NYC. Her work has appeared in, Fireside, and Cossmass Infinities, among other places. She can be found on Twitter @tinaszhu and at
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