Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson (book review).

The difficulty with time travel stories is that it’s very easy to tie yourself in knots whilst trying to make the plot interesting. Robert Charles Wilson makes it clear early in the plot how endless paradoxes and recursive loops are to be avoided. This by the fact that an alternative history is created when time-travellers arrive in the past, a history that from then on diverges from their own. The setting for ‘Last Year’ is 1876 America where visitors from the future have set up an enclave in the wilderness. Here visitors can experience the ‘authentic’ Wild West and locals can see the city of the future and the marvels therein.

Jesse Cullum is a local drifter hired to work at the City of Futurity as a security guard which, in the first paragraph, entails him saving the life of the President and thereafter coming to the attention of the city management and of the multi-billionaire behind the whole enterprise. Jesse is generally a quiet and reserved character and enjoys the lonely shifts checking the fence line and keeping his head down, but now finds himself given more responsibility that leads him to new experiences and adventures. The book is divided into three parts that recount three subsequent episodes of Jesse’s life and work as the City of Futurity enters its final year before the ‘mirror’ portal to the future is closed down for good and the city left to the locals, for reasons gradually expounded through the course of the book.

The contrast between old and new comes across exceedingly well throughout the novel, with Jesse struggling to understand and tolerate the morals and attitudes of the visitors from the future, including new colleague, Elizabeth DePaul. At the same time, Elizabeth and those like her discover that an authentic trip to the Wild West is much better when carefully controlled and sanitised. The racist and sexist views of the nineteenth century cause upset to those from the future and inspire some to foment revolution, but at the same time their own ‘enlightened’ morality causes scandal amongst the locals.

Robert Charles Wilson does a fine job of demonstrating both points of view without become preachy about rights and wrongs. Jesse and Elizabeth make a great team. Her taking the lead within the confines of the city amid its modern technology. Him taking the lead outside, where women are meek and mild-mannered and know their place, a description that does not fit ex-soldier Elizabeth DePaul at all. Unlike many historical time-travel stories I’ve read or seen on TV, the visitors from the future have actually had some orientation and training sessions so that those on official business do a pretty good job of attempting to fit in without causing outrage, rather than attempting to assert their rights and decry the political incorrectness of it all.

The duo investigate smugglers who are sneaking futuristic weapons and sunglasses to the locals; track down tourists who have ‘gone native’ and try to deal with Jesse’s traumatic past. It’s a wonderfully paced book, allowing time to enjoy the scenery and get to know the characters while providing plenty of intrigue and danger to build up the tension. It’s both intelligent and entertaining, a fine example of what a time-travel story should be.

Gareth D Jones

August 2017

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2016. 351 page small hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), $38.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3263-9)

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