Last Year, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 978-0-765-33263-9, $27.99, 352pp, hc) December 2016
The past, it has been said, is another country. If you’re August Kemp in Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year, that other country is one you can monetize.
Kemp, a billionaire businessman from something resembling our near future, has opened a resort of sorts in 1876. The writerly hand waving that makes this possible is mirror technology, which lives in the basement of his two towered building in the midwestern plains. Tourists from our time walk through the mirror and explore the wonders of post-Civil War life, including excursions to New York City and San Francisco. ‘‘Locals’’ or, as we’d know them, ‘‘folks who live in 1876,’’ work at the Towers and are given limited access to the wonders of the future, and wealthy tourists from the past can stay at the resort to experience indoor plumbing, among other mod cons we take for granted.
While 21st-century visitors can come and go from the time period at will, it is verboten for the 19th-century locals to do the same. Ditto future technology, like helicopters and Glocks. Jesse Cullum, a local who has worked on site for a few years, starts his security shift by saving the life of President Grant, who had been targeted by an assassin with a decidedly non-19th century gun. Callum and Elizabeth, a 21st-century woman also on the security team, are tasked with unraveling a smuggling operation and wind up getting more tied up with each other and with Kemp’s less-than-altruistic business model.
Wilson’s books never seem to go where you expect them to, which is one of the reasons why they tend to be delightfully surprising. Yes, there’s a love story, but it is one told sideways. Sure, there’s a lot of weighty musing about the downsides of tourism, but there’s also a zippy plot that features a cartoonish yet still terrifying villain. There is thrilling adventure, too, and one of the best-written fight scenes I’ve had the pleasure to read. Last Year is more complicated than it appears without ever feeling like a chore to push through.