Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson

Posted: January 7, 2017 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , ,

Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson cover(Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson. TOR, 2016, 351 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Prolific Canadian sci-fi author Robert Charles Wilson’s most recent novel, The Affinities (2016), was a thought-provoking, enjoyable read, as have been most of his previous books; he has, however, produced a few duds, such as Burning Paradise (2013), the novel preceding The Affinities. So, I was looking forward to this new book, hoping for the best but wondering where it would fall on the spectrum.

Last Year has its points. One is its premise, which is that sometime in the near future physicists will have discovered a way to access parallel time streams, and that a billionaire (August Kemp) has taken advantage of that discovery to open a type of Disneyland in 1873 Illinois. He uses that amusement park, Futurity City, to attract at top dollar the rich of the period to see the “wonders of the future,” and the 21st-century rich to indulge in a nostalgic (not so) “cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”

The protagonist is Jesse Cullum, a “local” working on Futurity City’s security detail, who comes to Kemp’s notice after foiling an assassination attempt on President Ulysses S. Grant. Cullum subsequently undertakes a number of special assignments with a partner from the 21st century, Elizabeth DePaul.

Wilson interweaves their adventures in the 1870s with Cullum’s back story as the son of a drunken whorehouse bouncer in San Francisco; following a violent altercation with the novel’s villain, mob boss Roscoe Candy, Cullum fled the city abandoning his injured sister to his aunt’s care.

To add tension to the tale–what is going to happen to all of these characters?–Wilson utilizes a “time lock” device: the portal to the future, “the mirror,” will close in 1877 to avoid excessive disruption to the time line in which it opened. With the time lock always lurking in the background, the tale unfolds, with the tension ramping up as the deadline approaches.

One of the virtues of Last Year is that Wilson uses the story to demystify both “Golden Age” America (racist, misogynistic, ignorant) and present-day America (somewhat less racist, misogynistic, and ignorant), and also to show that even the most apparently benevolent rich people can be (and almost inevitably are) warped by their wealth and power.

On the negative side, one minor problem is that while a fair portion of the book is set in San Francisco, Wilson is apparently unfamiliar with the place. For instance, he references people sweltering in their bedrooms during the summer. This is simply wrong. A typical summer day in San Francisco is overcast and foggy with a high of 55 and a low of 54; the warmest part of the year is in September and October, when the temperature will sometimes rise into the 80s, but usually doesn’t.

As well, the geography is slightly off. As an example, part of the action is set in a hotel on the block between Mission and Market on Montgomery Street. Wilson sets the walk to the Market Street wharf at 30 to 45 minutes from there. During my decade in San Francisco, I worked for a short time in a building half a block from the hypothetical hotel in Last Year; the walk from there to the wharf is a brisk 10 minutes, 15 if you take your time.

But these are minor matters. Anyone not familiar with San Francisco wouldn’t notice them.

A more major problem is that it’s too easy to figure out how the plot will resolve, as there are very few possible ways it could go. Halfway through Last Year, I thought I had it figured out, and I did. The details were all that were in question. Almost any reader who’s paying close attention would probably also figure out the plot.

Last Year is a mixed bag. The writing is, as usual from Wilson, skillful. The characters are interesting and (mostly) sympathetic. The action scenes are well described. And Wilson’s social commentary is spot on. It’s difficult, however, to get beyond the too obvious plot resolution.

If you’d want to read any of Wilson’s recent novels, I’d recommend The Affinities, not Last Year.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel. And an unrelated sci-fi novel.)

Free Radicals front cover

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