Book review: The past is so bright in Robert Charles Wilson’s “Last Year,” you have to wear shades

Robert Charles Wilson does one of my favorite things that science fiction writers do — takes a shopworn old theme and makes it new. In this case, the theme is time travel.

“Last Year” amzn.to/2VmipJq takes place in 1870s America, in the City of Futurity, a resort outside Chicago built by time travelers from the 21st Century. These future Americans are a strange breed, carrying mobile phones, with women, blacks and homosexuals as equals — even electing a black man as President of the United States. The hero of the novel is the 19th Century’s Jesse Cullum, who grew up in a San Francisco whorehouse and now works security in the City of Futurity. Cullum foils an assassination attempt against visiting President Ulysses S. Grant (and in so doing loses his beloved Oakley sunglasses). The assassin is using a Glock, indicating the attempt is an inside job from the future, and so Cullum teams up with a 21st Century woman to find the assassin and the plot behind it.

Wilson’s gimmick is that in his world, you can travel to the past and make whatever changes you want, and it won’t effect your present.

Wilson’s strengths are realistic worldbuilding and compelling characters. He takes us through 19th Century America that has been altered by years of contact with the 21st. Cullum interacts several times with the 21st Century American businessman behind the City of Futurity; like today’s real-life tech entrepreneurs, the founder of the City of Futurity initially professes the most noble motives, but the reality doesn’t work out like he said he planned.

Wilson just keeps on turning out one gripping novel after another, and his themes are frequently about time travel, or the past colliding with the future in some other ways. In “Julian Comstock: A Story of 22d Century America,” amzn.to/2LHaW2Y we see America more than a century from now, after fossil fuels have run out — after the “Efflorescence of Oil” — when both society and technology have regressed back to the 19th Century. “Julian Comstock” is an adventure story in the spirit of 19th Century dime novels.

Wilson’s “Spin” amzn.to/2BRnXCF and its sequels tells the story of a half-century of world history starting in a time much like the present, when the Earth is surrounded by an impenetrable shell by some invisible alien superpower; “Spin” is a rarity among tales of super-science in that the explanation of how the miracle occurred turns out to be satisfying.

By the way: There’s a running joke in one of the early chapters of “Last Year” that’s made even funnier by the change in men’s fashions between the time Wilson wrote the novel, its publication in 2016, and my reading it last year. I shall say no more about that for fear of spoiling the gag for you. On the other hand, the gag in the marketing blurb for the book would have been better if Cullum has been wearing Ray-Bans — I had no idea until I read this novel that there is a brand of sunglasses called Oakleys.

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