Robert Charles Wilson, author of the Hugo Award-winning Spin (2005) and one of the better books of 2015, The Affinities, continues his run of smart science fiction with Last Year. The book offers a new look at time travel, with plenty to say about capitalism, cultural relativism and the ethics of tourism. Especially when the tourists come from the future.
The City of Futurity is a unique vacation opportunity. Scientists in the near future develop the Mirror, a time portal that can establish a link to a specific place and time, in this case Reconstruction-era Ohio. Wilson avoids any temporal paradoxes by establishing a multiverse; the changing of events in the past brings a new universe into being, so nothing that happens will impact the present of the time travelers. Time-travelers from the future use the City as a springboard for temporal tourism. And the “natives” can come to the City for a glimpse of the future—as long as they pay in gold.
Jesse Cullum is a native who was raised in a San Francisco brothel and on the run from crime boss Roscoe Candy. He finds safety and a steady paycheck working security for the City. He proves his worth when he foils an assassination attempt against President Ulysses S. Grant. And he gets drawn into a deeper mystery when he discovers the would-be assassin carrying a 21st-Century firearm.
Jesse makes for an interesting point-of-view (POV) character. The most common approach in these types of stories would be to have a POV character from our time act as a stand-in for readers, allowing us to see the past through his time (this is why Lewis Carroll sends Alice to Wonderland and not the Mad Hatter to London). But Wilson does the opposite, giving us a 19th-Century POV character, which provides an opportunity to view our own customs through an outsider’s lens.
For example, Jesse considers no technological advance quite so miraculous as Oakley sunglasses. When he meets August Kemp, the billionaire behind the City, he wonders why a wealthy man would be thin and wear blue jeans, although he astutely observes Kemp’s appearance to be just as ostentatious a display of status as the big bellies and fancy suits of the robber barons in his own time. Jesse learns that any term denoting race from his time is bound to offend those from the future, that people of the same sex will one day be able to marry and that women will become soldiers. It is from one such solider that he learns of PTSD and recognizes that he “himself had caught it from his last encounter with Roscoe Candy.”
This novel asks a thought-provoking question: if time travel is possible, what duty does the future owe the past? The City plans to run for ten years, after which its very existence will have so altered the past as to make it undesirable as a tourist attraction. At the end of this period, Kemp promises to share technological and medical advances with the people of the past, but millions will have died of preventable causes before that happens. Visitors from the future wonder whether they have an obligation to stop Jim Crow from arising or Adolf Hitler from being born.
These are heady questions without easy answers, and that’s what makes Last Year such an enjoyable book. Seeing our world through Jesse Cullum’s eyes made me wonder if our society has really progressed as far as we think it has. And it spurred my imagination to think about just what I would do if I had a ticket to the City of Futurity.