It’s normal enough to open a book review by making a general observation about the common nature of this or that trope in fiction, and then go on to introduce a book that twists said trope in some fashion. Perhaps there are too many notches on my reading belt, but many a time I have read such reviews, read the book in question, then thought to myself “In fact there is nothing really unique about the novel… It is a blatant representation of the trope, only the details of setting or character differ slightly….” Thus, while no two grains of sand may be alike, standing on a beach they all look the same. Robert Charles Wilson’s time travel novel Last Year (2016) is standing on the beach—the perfect metaphor for the most appropriate place to read the book.
Jesse Cullum is a strapping young man employed as security by The City, a specialized urban area constructed in the Illinois prairie in the mid-19th century by 21st century tycoon August Kemp. Kemp having constructed a time portal between 2016 and 1877, The City contains hotels and other accommodations for people from the future to visit the past, and likewise provides tourist attractions for locals to come and see wondrous things from the future, such as helicopters and smartphones. Cullum saving the life of President Ulysses Grant from a would-be assassin in the opening pages, the follow-up investigation reveals a trickle of illegal guns from the future, somehow being trafficked through the time portal. Cullum a hero as a result, he is given a raise and assigned the task of finding the source of the guns. Meeting 21st century agent Elizabeth DePaul in the process, together the two get to the bottom of the smuggling ring. But that is only the beginning. Political agitators and Kemp’s secret ambitions, as well as ghosts from Cullum’s past rising to the surface, things heat up for Cullum, and fast. Time seems to hold no influence on greed and payback.
Yes, time travel, time travel, time travel. That beaten and dead horse of science fiction tropes. Some novels which incorporate it seem bent on attempting something unique (see Dexter Palmer’s brilliant Version Control or David Gerrold’s very personal, very humane The Man Who Folded Himself), while others consign themselves to the familiarity and attempt to wrap likable characters and engaging story around it, instead. As hinted in the opening, Last Year falls squarely on the side of the latter. A rather cheap revenge plot sprinkled with some distant, faint nods to contemporary liberalism and lite philosophical commentary on the disparity of quality of life between the centuries, there is little of substance to the novel. The focus story and character like/hate-ability, any potential the novel had for being a metaphor for third world exploitation by Western interests or a deeply human story about the profundity of confronting the future, for example, goes unexploited.
In the end, Last Year is rather blasé material. Standard revenge plot, standard bad guy, standard commentary on past vs. future, standard hero, standard time travel device, standard political commentary, standard love story, standard… Standard being what it is, Wilson brings to bear some reasonably good prose and does all the little things well, including building structure, developing plot and purpose, etc. But beyond this, there’s little more to appreciate that hasn’t been presented in many a novel before. So mundane, in fact, Tor didn’t know what to do for the cover, so they just made the words bigger. A light, beach read to say the least, Wilson’s The Chronoliths and The Affinities do a much better job of portraying the humanity at stake given the scenarios presented, and come recommended far in advance.