The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
AUTHOR INFORMATION: Thomas Mullen is the author of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers and The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. He lives in Decatur, Georgia with his wife and two sons.
PLOT SUMMARY: Zed is an agent from the future. A time when the world’s problems have been solved. No hunger. No war. No despair.
His mission is to keep it that way. Even if it means ensuring every cataclysm throughout history runs its course — especially the Great Conflagration, an imminent disaster in our own time that Zed has been ordered to protect at all costs.
Zed’s mission will disrupt the lives of a disgraced former CIA agent; a young Washington lawyer grieving over the loss of her brother, a soldier in Iraq; the oppressed employee of a foreign diplomat; and countless others. But will he finish his final mission before the present takes precedence over a Perfect Future? One that may have more cracks than he realizes?
FORMAT/INFO: The Revisionists is 448 pages long divided over thirty-six chapters. Each chapter is narrated by a single POV. Three of the POVs — Leo Hastings, Tasha Wilson and Sari — are narrated in the third-person. The other POV, Zed/Troy Jones, is narrated in the first-person. The Revisionists is self-contained. September 28, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Revisionists via Mulholland Books. The UK version (see below) will be published on the same day via Mulholland UK.
ANALYSIS: The Revisionists is described by the publisher as a “fast-paced literary thriller that recalls dystopian classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.” A fairly accurate description considering that Zed — one of the novel’s main characters — is from the future. A future that may seem ‘perfect’ because of the way war, crime and racism has been largely eliminated, but in reality is an Orwellian society where all history, even the physical evidence of recently deceased loves ones, is controlled by the Government.
Zed is a Protector of this future, this ‘Perfect Present’. As an agent of the Department of Historical Integrity, his job is to go back in time and ensure that certain Events are not altered by historical agitators (“hags”). Assigned to the Disasters Division, Zed must protect such Events as 9/11, Nazi concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima, and, in his latest mission, the Great Conflagration which will be responsible for killing billions of people across the world. This concept of going back in time to protect history from changing is slightly reminiscent of Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, but Thomas Mullen never explains how time travel is possible in this future, and instead focuses on the moral complications involved with time travel, while ruminating on such matters as existentialism and fate:
“What is predetermined, what spontaneous? You get to thinking about such things after this long on the job. You start pondering options that most people don’t even realize are there, seeing secret paths and hidden escapes. Or the opposite happens: you see the larger forces that guide you against your will or without your knowledge. If you are what you do, then what does it mean if others make that decision for you?”
Despite all of this talk about time travel and the future, The Revisionists is more of a contemporary drama/thriller in the vein of such movies as Fair Game and Syriana than it is science fiction. How so? For starters, the book is set almost entirely in present-day Washington, DC. Secondly, the novel’s three other protagonists are ‘contemps’, i.e. not from the future. This includes Leo Hastings, an ex-CIA agent currently gathering intel for a private contractor; Tasha Wilson, a corporate lawyer angered by the death of her brother, Lieutenant Marshall Wilson, and the vague details surrounding what happened to him; and Sari, an Indonesian maid/nanny employed by a South Korean diplomat and his abusive wife. Third, The Revisionists features a heavy dose of espionage, while whistle-blowing, entrapment, left-wing politics (anti-war, mainstream media), racial animosities, dictatorships, urban gentrification, privatized intelligence, civil rights and other topical issues are thoughtfully examined in the book. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is Zed. As the novel progress, the author starts dropping hints that maybe Zed is not an agent from the future after all. That maybe he is a deluded individual who became mentally unhinged after what happened to his wife and daughter. It’s a compelling argument either way, one the author never clearly answers, injecting the book with an ambiguity that reminded me of Blade Runner, Memento and Inception.
Regardless of what classification The Revisionists may fall under, there’s no debating the impressiveness of Thomas Mullen’s accomplished writing. Sympathetic characters with fully developed backgrounds; engaging narratives written in both the first and third-person; a plot that never loses its way despite a complicated tangle of myriad threads, twists and revelations; the clever ambiguity surrounding Zed and his past; the realistic depiction of Washington, DC . . . Thomas Mullen excels at all of this and then some. Admittedly, the author occasionally goes a little overboard when writing about politics or describing aspects of a character’s background, but for the most part, The Revisionists contains a level of writing that most people can only dream about.
CONCLUSION: The Revisionists is my first Thomas Mullen novel, although I had heard of the author last year when The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers was released, a book which intrigued me, but not enough to actually purchase a copy. What convinced me to read The Revisionists was a description that seemed to promise a thought-provoking science fiction novel in the vein of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. A promise that is only partially successful because of Zed’s ambiguity and the novel’s emphasis on contemporary issues. Then again, much of the novel’s best qualities can be attributed to these same factors. That and Thomas Mullen’s brilliant writing. So even though The Revisionists was not the science fiction novel that I was hoping for, I very much enjoyed Thomas Mullen’s new book, which offers readers a smart, relevant and engrossing reading experience…
I read the book and it did not hit my expectations. When I read the words time travel in a blurb I have certain expectations and the book could never fulfill them. And to be honest a greater part of the book has been really confusing for me. Even Thomas Mullen is an absolutely talented writer – The chapter where he describes the former life of Sang Hee, the wife of an South Korean diplomat is one of the most impressive ones I read in the past months – The Revisionists has been a disappointing read for me. I think the next time I try to find out before if a book delivers what has been promised in the blurb.