“Two events made the first of September a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant.” The opening lines to bestselling author Robert Charles Wilson’s latest book, Last Year, do what many of his past books have done: they make you stop and think and consider this what if: why are expensive modern day sunglasses in the same context as a president from the late nineteenth century?
It is the not too distant future where humanity has sort of discovered time travel, except it’s limited time travel, using special giant mirrors that can take people and things back to a certain point in the past, but only the not-too-distant past. The mirror is only “open” for a limited time to reduce the risk of the past learning and gaining too much from the future. It’s a great draw for tourism, the “opportunity of a lifetime.” And for those living in the past, they get to see what the future looks like.
Jesse Cullum is a man of the nineteenth century working in the specially constructed city for the people of the future. In a bold move that he does more out of reflex, he takes down a man looking to assassinate the President and finds his world changed. He is promoted and becomes a member of a special investigative team looking to protect the president and other important people, as well as get to the bottom of the smuggling ring that is bringing important items from the future back to the past and selling them on the black market, including guns like the one the man was using to assassinate the President.
Much as Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues was a noir detective novel set on Mars, Last Year is a gripping time travel novel with a noir detective story at its heart. Time travel stories have been done in many shapes and forms, which is why Wilson’s book offers a new angle on the whole time travel idea with something a little different, along with real and interesting people and a controversial central plot.
Robert Charles Wilson