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Sci-Fi Review – Last Year

LAST YEAR by Robert Charles Wilson

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


Sometime in the near future, time travel will be discovered. The Mirror, as they call it, has some limitations. It has a range – you can’t go back to the very near or the very far past.  And once you go into the past, you’ve really traveled into an alternate universe. The future of that place is now irretrievably changed from yours. There are no paradoxes – going back to kill the person who was your grandfather has no effect on you, because you’re no longer in the universe you came from. You can, however,  go back to your own future via the Mirror.

And so, to what amazing use has the Mirror been put? Tourism.  August Kemp opened a Mirror in 1870s, built a futuristic City in Ohio, and is selling tour packages to visitors from his time and carefully curated experiences of the City to 19th century customers. Many of the workers in the City are locals, who earn good money but are also not allowed to know everything about future technology.  The City has a limited shelf life though – the more exposure there is to the future, the more diversion there is from recorded history, and it becomes less interesting to the tourists. Five years in operation, and then it closes forever.

Jesse Cullum was once a drifter who got hired by the City. Jesse does low-level security jobs until the day he saves President Ulysses S. Grant from a would-be assassin. A 19th century assassin who is using a Glock-19 pistol, no less. Kemp is impressed by Jesse and teams him up with 21st century employee Elizabeth DePaul to investigate how the local got the forbidden weapon.   As Jesse and Elizabeth uncover a much bigger problem than one stray gun, they also become lovers. A doomed romance to be sure, because neither one of them can nor wants to stay forever in the other’s world.

But this is not a book focused on Jesse and Elizabeth’s relationship. Nor is it focused on the mechanics of time travel, although there’s an interesting bit about where the Mirror comes from.  The smuggling investigation is in the forefront although it is also more of a framework for the big questions.  Can you ethically provide access to technological marvels and then yank them away? Should you attempt to right the wrongs of the past, hoping it will lead to a better outcome?  And the alternate – if you know your present actions lead to future disaster, shouldn’t you change?  Wilson doesn’t beat you over the head with all this either, it’s nicely integrated into the rest of the plot.

Wilson’s characters don’t express reams of emotion, but they have plenty of trauma to be explored.  Jesse is very tolerant and accepting for the time, but there’s a reasonable explanation for it.  Elizabeth has her own issues, with a compelling reason to go back (and not just for indoor plumbing).  Eventually they will end up in lawless San Francisco, with the Mirror about to close, and everything else coming to a pulse-pounding head.

It’s a standalone novel, so the entire story is contained nicely. It has plenty of action to keep the pace moving along, decent characterizations, excellent imagery, and interesting philosophical questions.  It’s also one of the few time-travel novels that didn’t make me want to quibble about how it works. I recommend it.





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