Jesse Cullum works security at the City of Futurity – in fact, he just saved President Ulysses S. Grant from an assassination attempt, though he lost his Oakleys in the process.
The science fiction premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year (2016), is outlined in its opening scene. Oakleys are sunglasses that come from our time, but Ulysses S. Grant was one of the most important generals in the American Civil War. How can both exist in the same place? Well, in this novel, a “mirror” allows people to travel back in time, but to a specific point in the past — and it will produce a different a future. The people who travel back are tourists, and the City of Futurity, run by August Kemp, makes money from the past’s wealthy, who are curious to see the many inventions of the future. Also, Kemp steadily ships the past’s gold into the future. When the novel begins, The City of Futurity is about to begin its “last year” in the 19th century.
Jesse is a “local” hire, which means he was born in the 19th century. He excels at his job because he is a big, tough dude, but also because he strikes a balance between being open-minded and accepting things for being just the way they are. He likes Jimi Hendrix’s music and he doesn’t mind taking orders from women, but he also doesn’t envy the people from the future their complexions free from pox scars. In other words, he’s content to accept things for being the way they are while also accepting progress and change. In a way, the time travel motif allows both mindsets to add up to the same thing.
I first saw signs that Wilson was writing this novel before Trump ran for president, but it was difficult not to read the novel as a response to the call to “make America great again.” There are characters in Last Year who travel to the past to find past greatness. They are surprised by what they learn when they arrive in the glorious past. Here is one woman’s account:
One of the tenants here has a tumor on his face. It covers most of his right eye. Where I come from, it would have been treated and removed. So I find myself thinking, what if I get sick? Something as simple as appendicitis could kill me. A fever could kill me. I’ve had all the shots, but what happens when the vaccines wear off? As for the charm and innocence I hoped to find — it exists, it really does, but consider what it’s buried in. Racism. Misogyny and homophobia so absolute as to be nearly universal. Hatred of the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese — not that many of them are seen in these parts. Europe is as far away as the moon, Asia might as well be Mars.
Jesse is open enough to the shock people of the future express for the narrative to work, but he is also somewhat exasperated by them. When the same woman describes another scene of her culture shock, he cannot “imagine what else she had expected from an itinerant peddler.”
Robert Charles Wilson has produced another winner with Last Year, though some of his long-time fans could argue that it hardly offers anything new. Its exploration of the divide between conservatives and progressives can be found in The Affinities. Its exploration of the 19th century can be seen in Darwinia and Julian Comstock: A Tale of 22nd Century America. Its mirror and its impact on the culture of a generation can be seen in Blind Lake and The Chronoliths. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it and look forward to Wilson’s next novel.