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Last Year
by Robert Charles Wilson
Tor, $27.99, 351 pp
Published: December 2016

What if someone figured out how to make time travel profitable?  Jesse Cullum lives in 1876 and he’s employed as a security guard in the City of Futurity.  The City was built by a man from the 21st century as a sort of theme park.  Travelers from the future come to Illinois in 1876 to gawk at the locals and the local highbrows pay to visit the City and see future marvels like flying machines.  The plan is that the City will be there only five years after which time, all the 21st century guests and staff will take most of their toys and go home; leaving the City to Illinois in 1876 to use as they wish…so long as the power lasts.  During that time, the City tries very hard to minimize the effects on the local population but it is, of course, an impossible task – to shove that genie back into the bottle.  The five year window has a purpose; it is the most time that can be spent in the past before the changes to the local population become so great as to remove the reasons that draw visitors to the past.  And during the last year, the City will bequeath vast amounts of knowledge on science and health to 1876, a sort of parting gift.

Jesse is a very capable and intelligent security guard and gets the attention of August Kemp, the founder of the City, when he saves the visiting President Grant from an assassin’s bullet – but not an ordinary bullet.  The bullet came from a Glock.  Kemp, impressed with Jesse’s finesse in handling a volatile situation with aplomb, decides to partner him with a 21st century security specialist to find the source of the Glock; to discover how it ended up in the hands of a local.  Jesse finds himself partnered with a woman, Elizabeth; a woman who doesn’t expect the usual courtesies and even expects him to follow her orders.  Had Jesse been a typical man of his times, this partnership would probably have ended before beginning.  But Jesse has had a less-than-typical upbringing which actually prepared him for such an unusual assignment.  He finds a lot to admire about the woman and even respect.  Elizabeth is pleasantly surprised at finding him more than a dumb thug but is concerned about what secrets he is keeping hidden.  But they work well together and discover a large black market for 21st century movies, books and… weaponry.  Once the black market ring is broken, Jesse is prepared to return to his previous job…and his lonely room.  He is pleasantly surprised when Kemp again offers him an assignment – with Elizabeth – to find Kemp’s daughter, Mercy, and return her to him.  It sounds relatively simple.  The daughter was an activist and came to 1876 with her lover to fight for the downtrodden of the age:  Native Americans, Chinese laborers and negroes. The two left the City to hide out, becoming runners; troublesome to Kemp but not a real concern – until the Last Year when all runners needed to be located and brought back to the City.  Kemp did not intend to strand any 21st century visitor when the portal was inactivated; but not all runners wanted to return to the future.  Mercy’s lover, Theo, turns out to be the instigator of the weapons black market and she turns out to be quite a bit more than a petty activist.  On the way to finding the two runners, Jesse returns to the town of his childhood, San Francisco; to gain a lead on the two runners’ whereabouts.  But returning to San Francisco means returning to the nightmare that drove him away and revealing his darkest secret to Elizabeth.  Jesse isn’t sure if Elizabeth will feel the same for him should she know how he came to be the man he was.  By this point, Jesse and Elizabeth are deep into a love affair that is sure to have a disastrous ending:  when she returns to her daughter in the 21st century and Jesse remains in 1876 with all his enemies and nightmares.

I really enjoyed this plot.  It was the most transparently capitalistic take on time travel ever.  And, I’m thinking, probably closer to what might really happen.  Most stories take an obsessively protective stance:  keep the prime directive and protect the past, no matter what.  But let’s face it:  if money is to be made, most people won’t care how they get it.  The only reason Kemp has to protect the past is to keep it “pristine” for the paying customers.  Once enough future technology and ideas affects the timeline, it simply isn’t profitable to remain.  He does, at times, seem almost apologetic and extends help and benefits to the local timeline inhabitants; but at other times, he is callous and self-serving.  Jesse is a very complex character and I really enjoyed getting to know him.  Elizabeth was a bit more opaque but since the POV was Jesse, that is to be expected.  The supporting characters – and there was quite a host of them – were a lot of fun and pretty well-fleshed.  Wilson has a spare style so don’t expect to hear all of the character’s innermost thought and feelings.  That style actually appeals to me; I really like a concise, tight story as opposed to an epic 700-page tome where we know, down to the toenail, everything there is to know about a character. That level of detail may be part-and-parcel of the epic fantasy, but it isn’t necessary for all speculative fiction.  A lot of us like a story for its plot.  And although I was sure I knew the ending, it wasn’t exactly as I’d imagined it; the author managed to surprise me a little.  ~~ Catherine Book

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