Novel: Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson can generally be relied upon to provide an entertaining, accessible read, and Last Year (2016) is another case in point: a minor work in his oeuvre, perhaps, but still satisfying. It’s a time travel adventure set during the Reconstruction, or rather, an alternate Reconstruction. This particular post-Civil War era has been transformed by the City of Futurity, a citadel on the plains of Illinois that has been built by time travelers from our near future. Jesse Cullum is a “local” of the era who has taken a security job at the City, which carefully segregates the temporal natives of 1876 from the tourists visiting the era from the future. When Jesse single-handedly prevents an assassination attempt on the visiting President Ulysses S. Grant, however, he’s singled out by the City’s founder to partner with a security officer from the future named Elizabeth. Their mission: to investigate the fact that the would-be assassin was using a handgun that had been smuggled from the future.

What ensues is a brisk, interesting series of mystery-solving adventures that mingle late-nineteenth century American history with contemporary characters and the technological anachronisms they’ve carried into the past with them, irrevocably creating a splinter universe. This era is generally not my reading wheelhouse, nor is time travel, but Wilson makes it a fun, quick read that explores themes and ideas similar to those explored by William Gibson in The Peripheral. Wilson’s take isn’t as impressive, but it’s well designed and smoothly executed, a thoughtful speculation on short-sighted, exploitative human ambition.

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