Fiction Reviews


Last Year

(2016) Robert Charles Wilson, Tor (US), £11.99 / Can$23.99 / US$16.99, pbk, 351pp, ISBN 978-0-765-39330-2

 

It is 1876 and security guard Jesse McCallum has an eventful day at work. First, he saved the US President Ulysses S. Grant from an assassination attempt, and secondly – more importantly to him – he lost his Oakley sunglasses.

Jesse, a 1876 local, works for a company from the 21st century who provides trips for tourists from the future to see the nineteenth century US, as well as locals who come to see parts of Futurity City, the tourist company's main base in the past.

The thing is, it transpires, that the gun used in the assassination attempt was a Glock from the 21st century: someone is smuggling 21st century technology to the locals. August Kemp, the multibillionaire who owns the tourist company decides that Jesse is just the person to accompany a 21st century security agent to the nearby rail station settlement of the 19th century locals to see if they can track the smugglers…

US-born, Canadian living, Robert Charles Wilson is arguably Canada's leading, extant SF author who is known for his: peaceful alien invasion novel The Harvest (1992);  winner of the SF Chronicle and the Aurora Award as well as Hugo short-listed Darwinia (1998);  the first contact novel Blind Lake (2003);  the microbially hostile, alien world exploration novelette Bios (1999) a personal favourite of mine having worked for a while in a germ-free lab;  the John W. Campbell Memorial Award winning, and Hugo short-listed, message from the future novel The Chronoliths (2001);  the Earth time-accelerated-to-the-future novel Spin (2005) which members of the SF² Concatenation team selected in January 2006 as one of the best SF novels of 2005 and which later that year went on to win the Hugo Award for best Novel, its sequel Axis (2007) and trilogy concluding Vortex (2011);  the 2010 Hugo Award short-list nominated future, post-oil US novel Julian Comstock (2009);  and the applied psychology, quasi-eusocial novel The Affinities (2015), among other works.

Having said that, he is less known in the British Isles and is not always published here: there's room for a leading Brit SF imprint to come in and publish his backlist at 6-monthly intervals.  Nonetheless, you can see from the above that he has done a fair bit including some award-winning works.

Wilson's oeuvre within SF is broad, but arguably space and time are two tropes to which Wilson keeps returning.  Last Year is one such time travel story but this time the protagonist is someone from our past which is where the novel is set. But it should be remembered that Robert Charles Wilson does not do bog-standard SF; you have to consider his works in the broader panoply of SF. Time travel is one of SF's core tropes from the seminal The Time Machine. That novel takes time as a single dimension which presents a cause-and-effect problem as illustrated by the Grandfather's Paradox: if a time traveller could go back in time and kill his grandfather then the time traveller would never be born to go back in time to kill his grandfather. Both physics and SF.  In physics this is solved by a time traveller going back in time not to a past in their own space-time continuum but to the past of a parallel universe. This has been brought to SF in a number ofnovels including Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels.  In Last Year Wilson explores the implications of such a form of time travel: the future time travellers impact on the past altering this alternate timeline and consequently ethical concerns arise.

The notion of time travel used for 'tourist' purposes is far from new but I note that, the same year as this novel came out, on this side of the Pond Robert Dickinson gave us The Tourist.  That novel, while having a superficially similar set-up, is markedly different: it is interesting to compare the two.

Robert Charles Wilson is a consummate storyteller of tales with a deftly constructed plot peopled largely by fully-fledged principal characters and who uses SF with confidence: no intense technobabble here.  He is also an easy read – but do not take that to mean his stories lack substance – and I devoured this novel in two sittings over two days.  To those somewhat seasoned in SF and unaware of the author, I tend to liken his novels to those of Clifford D. Simak: they frequently have an average Joe as the principal protagonist and they often have a countryside (non-urban) setting while underpinning them is a solid SF trope.

Do check him out.

Meanwhile, in addition to my recommendation (and for what it is worth) Last Year was shortlisted for the 2017 Locus Award.

Jonathan Cowie

Other time travel stories, not cited in the above article, reviewed on this site include:-
          Kaleidoscope Century by Steve Barnes
          Weaver: Time's Tapestry Book Four by Stephen Baxter
          Kindred by Octavia Butler
          Timeline by Michael Crichton
          Time on my Hands by Peter Delacorte
          The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
          Corrupting Dr. Nice by John Kessel
          11.22.63 by Stephen King
          The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
          The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
          Here, There & Everywhere by Chris Roberson
          A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin
          Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
          Blackout by Connie Willis
          How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu


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