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Literature / Paradox Bound

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Paradox Bound is a 2017 science fiction novel by Peter Clines.

Eli Teague lives in Sanders, Maine, a dead-end town that's way behind the times with nothing interesting ever happening there. Then a strange traveler bursts into his life, not once but twice, first when he's a little kid, and then as a teenager. The person, named Harry, wears colonial-era clothing (complete with a tricorn hat), carries a flintlock rifle, and drives a customized Ford Model A Business Coupe. Finally, at the age of 29, Eli is determined to get some answers, when the stranger reappears in his life. He ends up being thrust into a world of wonder and mystery, cut off from everything he knew.


The novel contains examples of:

  • All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Subverted. While Eli does like a cheerleader named Nicole as a teen, and they occasionally hook up as adults (after she breaks up with Zeke), both of them know it's never going to be anything more serious than this. At the end of the novel, after Sanders starts rejoining the rest of the country, Nicole moves away to Boston. Eli visits her, and they part as friends. He knew for years that no one ever is going to be like Harry.
  • The American Dream: The Searchers are all after the Dream, which turns out to be a physical thing, forged by the Egyptian god Ptah at the behest of the Founding Fathers, and stolen at some point in history. After Eli gets his hands on it, he refuses to mess with history. He releases it back into the custody of the Faceless Men, after ordering them to stop hunting Searchers, who haven't done anything wrong.
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  • Anachronic Order: Harry explains to Eli that Searchers frequently encounter one another at different points in their personal timeline, so they have to be careful about revealing events that the other person may not yet have experienced. Eli eventually finds out that his first encounter with Harry, when he was a little boy, hasn't actually happened to Harry yet. As far as she is concerned, they met when he was a teenager, which, to him, is their second meeting.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: According to Harry, Benjamin Franklin was a Freemason grandmaster, who gathered his fellow Founding Fathers, all of whom were, apparently, members, and performed an occult ritual to summon the Egyptian god Ptah in order to forge the Dream, which would allow them to shape America as they saw fit. Eli is skeptical, of course, as, to his mind, Freemasons are little more than a club that meets periodically and does little else.
  • Anti-Villain: The Faceless Men can be seen as this, as their goal is to preserve American history from accidental or intentional changes. While the methods they use are hardly ethical (killing anyone they catch), they themselves consider themselves to be the true heroes of this story.
  • Bad Future: Eli finally catches on that everyone seems to see American history as a static block of time between the American Revolution and the mid-21st century. He questions John Henry about it, who explains that few Searchers have ever returned from anytime past 2050. Those who have, tell wildly different stories. Some tell of a global paradise (presumably implying no more US as a separate nation), while most speak of decline, war, and/or Alien Invasion. Either way, American history ends at that point. John Henry's opinion is that history is unraveling, after the theft of the Dream, and will eventually roll things back to 1776, resulting in a world without the United States as a separate nation. On the other hand, Harry implies at the end that there's now a road to Cuba.
  • The Blank: The Faceless Men, who are chasing the Searchers. With utterly featureless faces, they wear masks and use hypnotic badges to make sure no one notices that the person they're talking to has no face. Originally tasked with protecting the Dream, after failing to keep it safe, they has doubled-down on their secondary job - keeping history intact from accidental or intentional travelers. The first Faceless Men were 5 volunteers from the Continental Army. Eli eventually figures out that the Faceless Man chasing them, calling himself Fifteen, is none other than Abraham Porter, the founder of Harry's "chain" of Searchers, who was captured by the Faceless Men and turned into one of them. His single-mindedness is the reason they are now so determined to eliminate all Searchers.
  • Bodyguard Babes: Eli's boss Archibald Truss never goes anywhere without two burly Russian women at his side. At least one is speculated to have been an Olympic bodybuilder at one point. After Fifteen and Zero kill Truss and one of the “babes”, the other one effectively inherits Truss's banking empire, running it as his messenger, until such time as people figure out that no one has seems Truss himself in years. She fires Eli but gives him a nine-figure severance check, which he calls a bribe but still takes.
  • Boom, Headshot!: The Faceless Men tend to aim for the head. Within their certainty radius, they usually don't miss. Subverted when Zero shoots Eli in the shoulder. Harry assumes it's because he's still new and hasn't gotten used to the certainty. Eli, though, thinks that it's because Zero used to be his bully Zeke, who doesn't want a quick death for Eli.
  • The Bully: Zeke, who used to torment Eli as a kid. He joined the Sanders police force after growing up. He's even more determined to torment Eli as a cop, largely because Zeke's ex-girlfriend has a casual on-and-off relationship with Eli. He retains the obsession with Eli after becoming a Faceless Man, although Eli eventually meets the version of Zeke, who has grown out of it and seems happy with being a Faceless Man.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: This is how the Dream works. If thousands of people believe in the same thing, the Dream will do what it can to make it happen. This is also why it went missing. Since thousands of people were looking for it, it had to go missing in order for it to become true, thus creating a Stable Time Loop, since no one would be looking for something that wasn't missing.
  • Combat Clairvoyance: The Faceless Men are certain of everything around them within the range of 200-300 feet. This means that they are able to position their bodies at exactly the right angle to make any bullet fired at them to either miss completely or bounce off their bones without even penetrating the skin. The only way to kill a Faceless Man for sure is to do it from far away, probably with a sniper rifle.
  • Cool Car: Harry drives a heavily customized Ford Model A Business Coupe. Her late partner/husband installed a Garrett electrolytic carburetor, which allows the car to run on water. When Eli asks why she doesn't use a more modern (from his viewpoint) car or even one from the future, she explains that it's far easier to pass an old car as an oddity than a futuristic car, which would stand out like a sore thumb. Besides, how is she supposed to maintain a car packed with electronics in, say, the 1890's? No, as far as the Searchers are concerned, Older Is Better. In addition, traveling through history requires "American steel", which not only means the car has to be American-made but also be largely made of steel, as opposed to plastic or some modern material. This, basically, means that any car past the mid-70's is out. Near the end of the novel, Eli answers a classified ad, selling a mint green 60's Chevy Impala. He is told by the owner that, so far, a bunch of college kids inquired about it, asking to see if it could be painted black to be like the Supernatural car, confusing Eli, since he's never heard of the show. The car has clearly seen better days, but Eli buys it anyway.
  • Cool Train: John Henry's Steel Bucephalus will make every train buff salivate. When Eli realizes that John Henry travels through ti- history on a steam train, he tries to reference the ending of Back to the Future Part III, only for Henry to chuckle and tell him that he's heard that one a dozen times and has seen the movie himself. Henry explains that railroads are such a huge part of American history and culture that he can travel almost anywhere (and anywhen) in the continental US. Sure, he's a little more limited than the car-driving Searchers, but his train is, effectively, a mansion on wheels, with all the comforts of home.
  • Dance Party Ending: Harry offers this to Eli as one of the options on what to do when the Search is over. He opts for Riding into the Sunset.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Given that Searchers come from different periods of American history, it's understandable that the values they've been raised with vary greatly. It's slightly softened by the fact that most Searchers have visited much of American history, including the 21st century, so they're aware of societal changes. Still, when Harry starts learning more about Eli, she's surprised that he's 29 and still unmarried. Eli's response is that he's only 29, so there's no reason to rush into a marriage. Then again, his only "relationship" has really been a casual sex-based one with a former classmate, not atypical for someone from our time. Harry explains that, by the time she met her future husband, everyone thought she'd be an old maid (she wasn't even 20 yet).
  • Eagle Land: The book is a loving ode to Americana, although it doesn't hide the ugly side of any time period.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Eli has several, such as realizing that the Dream is located in the Founders' House in his hometown. He turns out to be initially wrong, as he realizes that it's the former location of the Dream, which is the HQ of the Faceless Men. Later on, he realizes that he was right in the first place, and the Dream never left, simply creating an optical illusion to appear missing.
  • Expanded States of America: At the Faceless Men's headquarters, Eli finds a room full of flags from various periods of American history. The last one he finds has 54 stars (six rows of nine stars each).
  • First-Name Basis: Eli and John Henry very quickly switch to first names. To Eli, that's perfectly natural. To John (being from the 19th century), it shows that Eli is a bold man. Harry is also surprised about how quickly they switch, although she's from the late-19th, early-20th century. As far as Harry, Eli almost always refers to her as Harry, as she personally dislikes Harriet, and he isn't used to calling someone his age "Mrs. Pritchard". For her part, Harry keeps referring to Eli as "Mr. Teague", which makes sense, given her upbringing.
  • He Knows Too Much: Eli and Harry fear they will be killed after discovering the location of the Dream and the Faceless Men's headquarters. However, Fifteen has no intention of killing them, as Eli made all Faceless Men promise to stop killing people in exchange for returning the Dream. In fact, all the Faceless Men are going to do is move their headquarters to an undisclosed location.
  • Hollywood History: Generally averted. In fact, a good chunk of the novel is spent on Harry explaining to Eli that things in the past aren't what he has seen on TV.
  • Info Dump: Partly subverted. Eli gets a lot of information, but the people who tell him admit that it may not be entirely true, since it's been passed down from one Searcher to another by word of mouth, so details are bound to get fuzzy and change. Also, this is how the Faceless Men experience the world around them. Whenever they go somewhere, there's suddenly a huge volume of information in their heads. Newly-recruited Faceless Men have some trouble at first, before they learn to sort it through quickly. This is why Zero manages to miss Eli and Harry during their first encounter, despite them standing a mere 50 feet away, well within the certainty range of a Faceless Man.
  • Insistent Terminology: Searchers don't travel through time, they travel through history, American history to be exact.
  • Malevolent Masked Men: The Faceless Men always wear masks when going on missions. This, along with their Perception Filter badges, allows them to walk among people and talk to them without anyone noticing that they have no faces. They're not all the same masks, though. For example, Zero's first mask is clearly a Guy Fawkes mask.
  • Man Versus Machine: When Eli meets John Henry, he is surprised to learn that the man is big on technology. Henry explains that the myth surrounding him is nothing but a big smear campaign, partly used to sell the very invention he managed to beat. As far as being a Luddite, he's no such thing. He loves science and technology (he's an amateur astronomer and has sat in on some of Neil deGrasse Tyson's and Carl Sagan's lectures), he just knows that humans are still an important part of making it all work right. Oh, and the man is a Trekkie (Eli notes a pattern in the shape of the Enterprise on his clothes, and Henry refers to a predestination paradox as the "transparent aluminum defense").
  • My Grandson Myself: This is how Archibald Truss has stayed off the Faceless Men's radar for so long, having grown adept at creating new identities with flawless paperwork, having realized that the Faceless Men track Searchers using historical records. Subverted in the end, when he's cornered by Fifteen and Zero, as Fifteen recites all the names Truss has used over the years, including his birth name.
  • Never My Fault: Zeke blames all the bad things in his life on Eli, even after becoming a Faceless Man. He eventually gets over this, but it takes a long time. Partly it's because his ex-girlfriend Nicole has an on-and-off relationships with Eli.
  • Never the Selves Shall Meet: It's generally a bad idea to encounter another version of you, as it can have unprecedented effects on history. Eli finds out near the end of the novel that he has already encountered himself once, he just didn't know it. During his first encounter with Harry as a boy, he briefly saw a man getting into her car with her. Much later, the 29-year-old Eli discovers he was that man. Generally averted by the Faceless Men, who use history travel to simulate the work of a huge department with only 48 men.
  • Nice Hat: Harry always walks around in a colonial-era tricorn, which earns her some odd looks but little more than that. She quickly gets Eli a bowler hat, explaining that it's the most popular men's hat for much of American history.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: After Eli's third encounter with Harry, he is visited at work by a Faceless Man calling himself Agent Fifteen. After being forced to reveal Harry's destination to Fifteen (who was choking him), Eli decides to go to Boston to warn Harry. While he misses Harry there, he does meat up with her contact Theo, who tell him where Harry is going next before realizing that Fifteen followed Eli, figuring Eli knew more than just "Boston". Fifteen ends up killing Theo. Despite this, no one calls Eli out on being stupid, even though his actions led to Theo's death.
  • No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel: Harry has some trouble traveling through history, being a young unaccompanied woman. This is why she prefers wearing male clothing, so that most passersby assume she's a man and ignore her. John Henry, being black, has trouble in certain parts of the country and at certain periods in history. He dreams of the time when skin color doesn't matter.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Sanders, Maine, seems to be stuck in The '80s. The town still has a working video store, no Internet or cell reception, and comic books still sold on wire racks. Eli later learns that Sanders is one of those towns that got "stuck" in history, 1988 in this case. He refuses to accept it at first, but then realizes it's true after thinking back. Apparently, it's not unusual to have towns that are stuck at a certain period in history. They make a useful transition point for Searchers. This changes at the end, when Eli discovers that the Dream has never actually left its location in the Faceless Men's HQ, which happens to be located in Sanders. With the location compromised, the Faceless Men move their HQ, and Sanders gradually rejoins the early 21st century over the next several months.
  • Our Time Travel Is Different: There are "slick spots" all over the US that allow any person, who knows how to do it, to "skid" from one period of history to another. This is generally limited to the contiguous United States, although some Searchers have managed to make it to Alaska as well. Hawaii and off-shore territories are off-limits, as one can't drive there. History travel is limited to the time America has been a nation (actually to the signing of the Declaration of Independence): 1776 to about 2050. "Skidding" typically requires a vehicle made of American steel (i.e. American plastic or American fiberglass won't cut it). The vast majority of Searchers use automobiles, while John Henry prefers a custom-built train, and at least one other Searcher uses a motorcycle. Eli is a bit disappointing that "skidding" has no special effects. In fact, if one isn't paying attention, it's easy to miss the transition point. According to Harry, hundreds of people "skid" every year, although most don't realize it. Some of them "skid" back to their own time, such as passing through a town that's stuck in history, while others get lost and are unable to find their way back. Many of them are eliminated by the Faceless Men, whose secondary job is to ensure that American history stays intact from intentional or accidental changes.
  • Perception Filter: The badges used by the Faceless Men have this effect on people, causing them to ignore that the Faceless Men are, well, men with no faces and to see them as government agents. Later on, Harry and Eli steal Zero's badge and use it to walk into the Faceless Men's headquarters with no one giving them a second look, revealing that it works on the Faceless Men too. Just in case, though, Harry has Eli hold the badge, pointing out that it's Faceless Men, not Faceless Women.
  • Place Beyond Time: In the Faceless Men's headquarters, it's always now. This is why Eli and Harry see hundreds (if not thousands) of Faceless Men working there, despite there being only 48 of them. They initially assume that, because they enter the building a century in the past, they can arrive before the Dream goes missing and steal it themselves. They get there only to see the Dream isn't there. Fifteen tells them that, no matter which period of history is used as the entry point, it's still now at the HQ, so whatever happened has already occurred.
  • Place of Protection: The town of Hourglass, is extremely tiny, but it has three pubs that were popular for exactly one week in its entire history. Why? Because that's where all Searchers went to meet up and feel safe for a week. The pubs are meant to be visited in order, as their names signify: the First Time Around, the Second Iteration, and the Last Paradox. This is to avoid anyone intersecting with their previous or future self. With so many timelines intersecting at Hourglass, the Faceless Men do not dare kill anyone there for fear of major repercussions to history. However, the place is safe for only three weeks at most. The First Time Around is packed with dozens of Searchers, many of them celebrating Harry's wedding. The Second Iteration has fewer people, as many have been killed by the Faceless Men by that point. The Last Paradox is meant to celebrate, when someone finds the Dream. Harry tells Eli that she visited it, looking for him, and found only about a dozen Searchers there, everyone who was still alive.
  • Riding into the Sunset: With the Search over, Eli and Harry decide to continue driving through history, exploring either Canada or Cuba.
  • Shattering the Illusion: Eli finally realizes that the Dream has never left its original place. It just created an optical illusion to make everyone, including the Faceless Men, believe that it was gone. Apparently, they never bothered to feel around on the table, trusting in their feeling of certainty, which was also being fooled by the Dream.
  • Sir Swearsalot: Zeke, before the habit is cut out of him by the Faceless Men, who are big on professionalism and politeness.
  • Stable Time Loop: A number of these are eventually closed, such as Eli remembering an old car being stuck between two trees in the woods not far from his home. Then, when he and Harry end up in the past, being chased by Zero, he suddenly has an epiphany and baits Zero to try to ram them with his car, resulting in the car getting stuck between two trees. Some of these are deliberately caused, such as Harry telling Eli that he must go into a saloon, where her earlier self is celebrating her wedding. Why? Because she recalls a man she'd never met coming in, exchanging a few words with her new husband, and then leaving. The biggest loop is the disappearance of the Dream. It disappeared because dozens of Searchers were looking for it, as were dozens of Faceless Men. However, since all of them crossed their own paths multiple times, it might as well be thousands of people believing that the Dream is gone. So, given the Dream's Clap Your Hands If You Believe nature, it simply disappeared in order to start the Searchers and Faceless Men on their search.
  • Stolen by Staying Still: It's revealed that the Dream was never missing to begin with. It never left its original location and merely created an optical illusion around itself to appear gone. The Faceless Men rely on their certainty, which the Dream was also fooling and never bothered actually feeling around on the table. And why did the Dream do this? Because it had to go missing for people to start searching for it across space and time.
  • String Theory: Two of the cars of John Henry's train are full of US maps throughout history, with multiple strings tracking both his fellow Searchers and the possible location of the Dream.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: When Eli first meets Harry as a kid, he immediately assumes that Harry is a boy, based on the name and the masculine (if a bit old-fashioned) clothing. It's not until he meets Harry again as a teenager that he happens to look down Harry's shirt and notices a nice pair of boobs. She finally explains that "Harry" is short for "Harriet". She later admits that it's not that he's unobservant, it's that she deliberately wears masculine clothing and goes by Harry, as much of American history isn't very kind to a young woman traveling alone.
  • Time Machine: Subverted. Eli initially assumes that Harry's Ford Model A can travel through time. Harry corrects him that, first, they're traveling through history, and, second, it's just a car. There are certain "slick spots" throughout the country that allow those, who know how to use them, to move from one period of history to another. There are certain requirements (such as the car needing to be largely made of American steel), but, otherwise, any car will do. The main reason most Searchers go with classic cars is because they're easier to maintain, especially in the past. John Henry is notable for preferring to travel through history by train, in luxury and comfort.
  • Time Travel for Fun and Profit: This is Archibald Truss's goal. He has been making small changes throughout history in order to build himself a large banking empire, but he has been careful to avoid attracting the attention of the Faceless Men. He seeks Abraham Porter's favor in order to use it as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, so he can make one major historical change and use the favor on Fifteen to get off scot-free. He has zero interest in the Dream.
  • Villain Ball: Archibald Truss holds it when he has Eli kidnapped in Hourglass and taken to a barn on the other side of town to be tortured for information. What he doesn't realize is that not all of the town is a Place of Protection from the Faceless Men, just the area around the three pubs. He catches a bullet to the head from Fifteen for his trouble.
  • You Are Number 6: The Faceless Men have no names, having given them up after being recruited (in fact, they no longer remember them). Instead, they are given numbers on a case-by-case basis. Eli and Harry's main antagonist is a Faceless Man calling himself Fifteen, although he then forcibly recruits another person (Zeke) and gives him the name Zero, explaining that all newly-converted Faceless Men are named Zero in order to instill into them the idea that they're no longer people.
  • You Owe Me: Since Searchers frequently encounter one another in Anachronic Order, they had to develop a system of favors that works despite one of the parties possibly not remembering owing a favor. Each Searcher has personalized wooden poker chips that they can give out to others. These chips are their IOU notes. Searchers are obliged to repay the favor, if one is presented to them, whether or not they remember giving it. Anyone suspected of faking a favor chip or refusing to honor their favor is ostracized by the Searcher community. Archibald Truss is desperately looking for Abraham Porter's favor, the only chip he ever gave out before being captured by the Faceless Men and turned into Fifteen. He figures that, even if only a shadow of his former self, Porter will still honor the favor. Harry is the one with Porter's favor, and she explains that it's something that only works once and serves as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the case of Fifteen. When Harry finally uses it, after breaking into the Faceless Men's HQ, Fifteen refuses to let them leave, but he does allow them to live... for as long as they keep talking, after explaining to them the concept of a filibuster.
  • The Wild West: A more realistic version is shown during the California Gold Rush. Harry tells Eli that she'll have to get him a bowler hat. When he asks why not a cowboy hat, she explains that, contrary to popular culture, bowler hats were far more widespread in the real Old West than cowboy hats.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Throughout the novel, Eli and Harry grow closer, opening up to one another and surviving certain death. Harry almost kisses him at the end of the novel, but pulls away at the last second. It's implied that they might have a relationship at some point, but it will take time, especially since Harry still hasn't quite gotten over her husband's death.
  • Write Back to the Future: When trying to fleet two Faceless Men in a California Gold Rush-era town, Harry and Eli head to the post office, and she asks to write a letter to send. The postmaster tells her that mail won't go out until the next day, but she doesn't care. She writes a letter to someone with initials J.H. and includes a wooden token with the same initials, indicating that she's calling in a favor. She asks the postmaster for the time, and asks to be picked up at the nearby unfinished train tracks in ten minutes. She then hands the envelope to the postmaster and pays for it. Ten minutes later, John Henry's Steel Bucephalus steams onto the rails in a Big Damn Heroes moment, picking up Eli and Harry, as the Faceless Men are closing in.

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