My Review of Last Year
Theory of Time
One measure of a good Time Travel story is its theory of time, and the one used in Last Year is superior. Unfortunately, it’s not original. David Lake originated the theory of multi-universe time travel in the late seventies. I remember him explaining it to me at the Intensive Institute for the Teaching of Science Fiction in the early eighties.
The existence of paradoxes proves time travel to be impossible, but in Lake’s multiverse theory of time travel, there can be no paradoxes. Time Travelers can do whatever they like in the past, and it has no effect upon the present that the traveler comes from. Lake believed his to be the only reasonable theory of time travel. He used it in his sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine.
This same theory has been used by a number of time travel authors recently, including Nathan van Coops. I’m wondering if a consensus is forming, favoring this view of time travel over the paradox-ridden theories that dominated past time travel fiction.
In Last Year the science that makes time travel possible involves manipulations of “Hibbert Space,” which of course, is an homage to Philip K. Dick. And the Mirror described in the story seems straight out of The Time Tunnel or Star Gate.
Application of Theory
How an author applies his theory of time is another measure of a good time travel story. The Man in the Empty Suit, for instance, generates a lot of tension in its first half from the fact that the story teeters on the brink of time paradox. It is only later in the novel that it becomes apparent that Sean Farrell has no theory of time and has been bluffing his way through the plot. Arguably, this may be appropriate for the surrealistic tale he is telling and his self destructive protagonist.
The theory of time used in Last Year is ideal for the plot of this book. Robert Charles Wilson has realized that profit-making would be the ultimate motive for time travel by Americans. In most time travel stories, time technology is controlled by the military or a private inventor, but in Last Year it has become public and is overseen by government regulation. It is within this context that billionaire August Kemp has pushed through his plan to exploit the past for profit. He intends to profit not only from people of the future through time tourism, a possibility previously explored by Kuttner and Moore in “Vintage Season,” but also profit from the people of the past directly by exchanging knowledge of the future for gold and silver.
<spoiler>This trade is supposedly kept “harmless” by limiting the exposure of people of the past to information that can’t alter their future. The people of the past are also supposed to be due an extra bonus of helpful information at the end of the time travelers’ visit. Of course, this bonus never arrives, and the reader is left wondering if Kemp ever meant to live up to this part of the bargain.
While reading this novel, I feel myself in constant turmoil at the damage the travelers are doing to the timeline in the past, this damage best exemplified by the effect it has had on Thomas Edison, whose patents and research have been violated and made redundant. I’m in constant, almost breathless fear of impending disaster despite the enjoyable landscape of the novel. These expectations of doom only get worse with the discovery of the gun trade.
Those who have claimed the motive of “helping” the people of the past actually do the most damage to it, their actual motive being to damage Kemp and serve their own narcissistic better-than-thou outlooks. The reader is forced by them to sympathize with Kemp and even more with Jesse, who represents both sides of this trade. This makes Jesse the perfect choice for the viewpoint character of the novel.
The novel explores not only the theme of the evil of exploiting the past but the folly of nostalgia for the past. The problems of disease and an unhealthy environment are both highlighted by the novel but also the pure violence of the culture of the past and its natural antipathy to outsiders. An interesting sidelight is the fate of the “runners,” those from the 21st century with an attachment to the past who have idealized it and wish to stay there.
The passage that impressed me the most was about a woman who came to the 19th century hoping to blend in so she could lead a genteel life among a circle of genteel women. But she is ostracized by them because she simply does not fit in—in more than a dozen different ways—not in looks, not in fashion, not in manners, not in diction, not in accent, not in deportment, not in attitudes, not in upbringing, not in education, not in everyday knowledge, not in habits, not in expressions, not in experience. She has no family and no background in their society, and of course, and to them that means she probably has a checkered past. She can’t explain herself as a time traveler if she expects to lead a normal life.
When I was reading about her, I thought to myself a man would not do this, would not time travel to seek acceptance in the society of the 19th century. A man would know better. No, a man would come to the 19th century so he could fight in a real civil war battle! Oh, boy!
I’m probably not the first to have the idea of a civil war re-enactor being plunged into a real battle, but I could not resist putting my own spin on it, so I’ve written a short story called “The Re-Enactor” and put it on my web site nedhuston.com for free in the Extras section next to the short short I wrote after reading The Man in the Empty Suit.
Wilson had a choice of writing a 19th century novel or a 21st century novel. The 19th century style would have suited his protagonist best, but the 21st century style suits his readers the best. The result of his 21st century style is that his protagonist doesn’t really speak or think like a 19th century person. He only approximates it. Most writers of historical fiction make a compromise so their styles are mostly modern but also contain some historical wording and phrasing. This style is almost all 21st century. I can’t fault Wilson for that. If he wants to write a page turner, he needs to keep his wording crisp, lean, and contemporary. After all, we don’t really need a lesson in nineteenth century diction and usage since we have libraries full of books from that era.
Reading Last Year was smooth sailing for me, both interesting and entertaining. The depiction of San Francisco was particularly eye-opening.
If there’s a flaw in Last Year, it’s in the character of Jesses. He’s believable, and he works as a viewpoint character, but he’s just not unique enough or charismatic enough to drive reader interest. If my fellow readers on Goodreads are stingy with their stars on this novel, I’d point to Jesse as the reason. He’s not a bad characters—he’s just not 5 star material. Neither is Elizabeth.
I’d give this novel 4 stars. It deserves slightly more. It’s better than The Man in the Empty Suit, which deserves slightly less. My wife thinks I’m too generous with my stars, and maybe she’s right. I sympathize with the writers and feel a lot of respect for what they’ve accomplished, and Wilson has accomplished a lot here. His time technology is convincing, his history is right on target, and his vision is complete. He’s gotten everything right. His novel just doesn’t have the wow factor of a 5 star performance.</spoiler>