Novel: Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

March 10, 2021

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.