I have a confession to make which probably won’t surprise too many readers of this blog: I don’t actually read everything I write about here (those posts where I talk about three or four books should be evidence of that, especially when they aren’t the only posts in a particular day — I read quickly but not THAT quickly!). Some of my posts are previews of things that are going to come out, which obviously I haven’t read, though some of them (and you can usually tell which ones they are) are in fact reviews of new (or old) books I’ve actually read.
When I write a post previewing books, I rely on the descriptions of the books the publishers provide, which are usually pretty accurate and enough to give you an idea of what the book’s about and whether it’s the kind of book you’d be likely to enjoy. I’ll usually try to read reviews of the book as well, in Publisher’s Weekly or the Library Journal or Booklist, and supplement the description with that information.
But sometimes the publisher’s description, and the reviews in the different publications, fall short of the mark, and I feel that if you knew what the book was really about, you might be more likely to want to read the book. In that case, I want to tell you what the book is really about.
Which brings me to Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson. I’ve already written a post about the book, at https://fieldlibraryadults.wordpress.com/2016/12/06/passageways-through-time-last-year-a-new-time-travel-novel/. But now that I’ve read the book — or rather, devoured it — I want to provide a more accurate and, hopefully, even more intriguing description of the book.
The original premise is the same: there’s a portal between the 21st century and the 19th, using a very strange and sophisticated device the people from the future call the Mirror. The people from the future built a whole city in what had been a nondescript town in Illinois, referred to as Futurity. People from the future come back to the year 1877, either as workers doing security and entertainment and providing the tech support to keep the future technology running, or as tourists eager to see the “unspoiled” world of America in 1877. At the same time, people who actually live in the 1877 world also work in the City, providing all the kinds of services you’d expect for a hotel and entertainment center, and rich people in 1877 are able to visit this amazing city and see such wonders as a real helicopter and moving pictures. There are rules about what the natives can see and do; there are secrets the people of the future are keeping from the people of the 19th century, for reasons they’re not telling.
The book opens with Jesse Callum, a security officer from the 1877 world, doing his job as President Ulysses S. Grant visits the City with his wife and various other VIP’s. Jesse, who has something of a colorful past and is quite familiar with violence, notices someone about to shoot the President, and attacks the man, preventing the assassination. The shooter is a native of 1877, a disgruntled former Confederate. The problem is the weapon he uses: a Glock, which could only have come from the future. As you can imagine, the people from the future have NOT been allowing futuristic weapons loose in the world of 1877, where they could change the course of history.
Jesse is paired with Elizabeth, a security guard from the 21st century, to investigate where the gun came from and how it got into the hands of a disgruntled 19th century person. Naturally, Jesse and Elizabeth are very alien to each other; things Jesse takes for granted make no sense to Elizabeth and vice versa. Also naturally, they come to understand each other and to work well together, to the point where Elizabeth saves Jesse’s life and risks her own future to help him and his family.
What’s the morality of being a time tourist? How can you justify having the knowledge to cure diseases that run rampant in the 19th century and keeping it from the people of the time? Or keeping technology secret that would make their world so much better? The man running the City promises that before the Mirror and the people from the future leave forever, they will share what’s appropriate of their knowledge with the people of the present, but who’s he to decide what’s appropriate and what isn’t?
There are runners who came from the future and then tried to escape into lives in the past, and some of them are trying to change history, either by trying to assassinate the man who will turn out to be the father of Adolph Hitler, or by giving out information, and guns, to people in the 19th century who are likely to need them. Is this moral? It’s certainly dangerous, as the history that spools out from the actions of the future people starts to change dramatically from the history we know about: strikes met with greater violence, more riots and lynchings, and general instability.
One of the things I really appreciate about the book is the clear eyed view of the past: it’s not presented as an ideal when people were more “genuine” or better to each other, but as a complicated world where people died young from diseases and infections we don’t see nowadays, women died in childbirth at alarming rates, sanitation was primitive, violence was rampant and attitudes toward different races and religions were appalling from modern perspectives. Similarly, while the people of 1877 may think the modern world is a utopia, we see from Elizabeth and other people that while technology has improved, there are still problems: Elizabeth’s husband is in prison, her mother is raising Elizabeth’s daughter while Elizabeth is working in the City, and one of the reasons she’s taken this job is to make enough money to be able to take care of her daughter.
There’s a lot more going on in the book than just the simplistic “Jesse falls in love with Elizabeth and doesn’t want to lose her,” and I would argue that that’s not even entirely what happens. At the end of the book, Jesse does escape to the future, with Elizabeth, but his reasons are complex and involve a lot more than just romantic attachment.
The world-building is wonderful, the characters vivid and lively, and the plot carries you along, making you think as well as keeping you turning pages. It’s not an ordinary time travel book (if there is such a thing), so if you were reluctant to pick it up because you don’t like paradoxes or the like, you really should give Last Year a try. It’s a great read!