Title: Last Year
Plot Type: Time Travel with a Twist
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—3; Humor—2
So...In the world portrayed in this novel, wealthy people from the 21st century can travel into a long-ago year within one of these pages/stalks/worlds, where they witness the actual events and personalities that they have read about in their high school history books. They can travel across the untrammeled wilderness, enjoy the quaint city life, and listen to lectures by long-dead scientists, politicians, and entertainers. Wilson's multiple-worlds mythology doesn't hold up to deep scrutiny, but it is fresh and inventive enough to provide a solid platform for this entertaining and suspenseful story. I suggest that you accept the details of the multi-worlds part of the mythology, but concentrate only on the specific time that you will be visiting: America in 1876, just eleven years after the end of the Civil War.
To break away from my book metaphor, these wealthy time travelers do not actually travel into the page of a book. They travel through the Mirror—a time-space portal that is situated deep underground on the central Illinois prairie where it serves as "the boundary between present and future." (Wilson's mirror portal calls to mind Alice in Wonderland's looking glass, which is also a portal to a different land.) As the travelers from the future arrive, the Mirror loses its solid state and allows them to walk through into a simpler, more primitive world. The travelers then go through a training program that attempts to get them to behave in a manner that will not alienate the 19th century locals (e.g., no cursing, no unwelcome touching of the locals, no smuggling or stealing). (Side note: Scattered throughout the discussions of the mirror are sentences like this: "The Mirror bridges a distance of approximately one hundred and forty-five eigenstate-years through ontological Hilbert space." These are all terms related to quantum mechanics, so if you want to wade nerd-deep in explanations, you can click on the pink-links in the previous sentence for more information. Personally, I just skipped over the "scientific" explanations and enjoyed the story.)
The entrepreneur who put this project together is August Kemp, a wealthy financier who dresses in jeans and Hawaiian-print shirts like a Silicon Valley tech CEO. He markets his time travel visits to the City of Futurity (aka the City)—as he calls his twin-towered settlement—as a way for modern people to truly appreciate their heritage. The whole project is set up like a series of theme parks and resorts. His clients travel across the country on specially built trains and helicopters, so that they can look out at the unspoiled lands of 19th century America. But they are housed in a special, luxurious tower away from the locals—a tower filled with high-tech 21st century amenities. The City's second tower is much less extravagant because it houses the locals who staff the various shops, restaurants, and tour groups. Kemp also offers a series of gallery experiences for the 19th century citizens so that they can catch a glimpse of what's in their future.
Kemp claims that his reasons for creating the City are altruistic—to educate both the travelers and the locals and to allow the locals a peek at their future. He sees himself as a philanthropic, Bill Gates type of person, but in actuality, he's more Trump-ian in his land grabs and profiteering. As one of Kemp's employees explains to a local, "Kemp tries to keep a strict wall of separation between our guys and your guys. Guests from the twenty-first century get a guided tour of 1876, and guests from 1876 get a sanitized glimpse of the twenty-first century. But they're not supposed to mix, except when Kemp arranges it. Policing the wall between them is how he makes his money." The bottom line is that Kemp is getting rich not only from the high fees paid by his clients, but also from the huge quantities of gold that he takes from 19th century mines and moves through the Mirror to the 21st century. Although many people see Kemp as a leader and a genius, others view him as a greedy opportunist. Kemp has many secrets, and the characters and events in this story relentlessly force those secrets into the open, with devastating results. Wilson has written a great tale that will keep you engaged from beginning to end.
An interesting aspect to relations between the locals and the City people is that they are not always as smooth as Kemp would like them to be. For a number of reasons, the two groups view each other with great suspicion. The City folks see the locals as racist (because they treat Black people and Asians like serfs or slaves) and misogynistic (because they elevate men and belittle women). Meanwhile, the locals view the City people as blasphemous (because they curse a lot), obscene (because the women wear trousers), and race mixers (because they travel in racially and ethnically diverse groups). Not to mention the outrage that boils up when the locals learn some unbelievably shocking news about their future: that women will be able to vote, that a Black man will become the U.S President, that men will be able to marry men, and that women will be able to marry women. The 21st-century people are equally as shocked at the politically incorrect language used by the locals: for example, Chinamen, Orientals, the "N" word, gal-boys.
Into this world, Wilson places a handful of fascinating characters with murky pasts. Then he puts them into situations that attempt to answer questions like these: If we could go back to 1876, would we be obligated to give the people our medical and technological knowledge, knowing that it would have major ripple effects on individuals and change the history of the world? Or should we leave that world as it is, even though people are dying of diseases we could cure and even though modern technology could vastly improve people's lives? What would happen if someone smuggled modern technological tools and weapons through the portal and distributed them to oppressed groups? If we know from our history books that a terrible event is due to happen in 1876, is it our responsibility to try to stop it? Or do we allow history to play itself out without interference? Wilson doesn't beat the reader over the head with these questions. He's too good a writer for that. But he insinuates these dilemmas into the plot as the locals and the City travelers play out their roles in this mesmerizing story. Here, the novel's protagonist explains why the displays and exhibits in the Tower's galleries were "eye-widening but vague on details.... Too much explicit information about the future would be disorienting; it might also be unfair. In the world [of 1876] men were laboring to invent a practical electric light, for instance, and the existence of the City of Futurity suggested that their labors weren't futile; but if the city handed out engineering details, the native inventor of such a light would be made instantly irrelevant; geniuses would die unhallowed and impoverished simply because the City had revealed too much too soon."
Two events made September 1st a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant. It's the near future, and the technology exists to open doorways into the past but not our past, not exactly. Each "past" is effectively an alternate world, identical to ours but only up to the date on which we access it. And a given "past" can only be reached once. After a passageway is open, it's the only road to that particular past; once closed, it can't be reopened.
One day, Jesse gets a visitor—a 21st century woman named Elizabeth DePaul. Elizabeth is a former soldier and a single mother who works for Kemp. Her daughter, Gabbie, lives with Elizabeth's mother in North Carolina (in the 21st century), and her husband is in jail for drug trafficking. Elizabeth is definitely a modern woman, and her appearance in Tower 2 (the Tower to which the locals are confined within the City) is a shock because she studs her conversation with profanity, wears trousers, carries a gun (and other weapons), and has a take-charge attitude that is shocking and offensive to the locals (especially to the men). Elizabeth tells Jesse that because he saved President Ulysses S. Grant's life earlier in the day, the President wants to thank him personally. Then, he gets to meet August Kemp and is assigned to partner with Elizabeth on a series of missions. The initial problem they deal with is the mystery of the gun that the would-be assassin used in his attempt to take Grant's life. It was not a 19th century weapon; it was a 21st century Glock 19 that was somehow smuggled through the Mirror from the future. After Elizabeth and Jesse work together to solve this case, they are separated for a while—assigned to other missions. But by this time, they have made a personal connection that neither is willing to give up.
As the story proceeds, we learn more and more details about the mysteries of Jesse's life and about the dark secrets held by August Kemp. Eventually, Kemp's enemies make life extremely dangerous for the City people, and as Jesse and Elizabeth carry out one last mission, they make some decisions that change their lives forever.
Wilson includes frequent moments of wry humor as Elizabeth and Jesse go about their work. For example, when Jesse asks why he keeps being "pegged as a local, and your clerks all peer at me like I'm Lazarus come forth," Elizabeth tells him, "It's your beard...You look like a refugee from ZZ Top. You look like Zack Galifianakis auditioning for a Civil War comedy." At one point, Elizabeth complains about all of the vaccinations required of travelers, and Jesse politely—but sarcastically—responds: "I apologize for our diseases We'd do without them if we could." Jesse is a master of understatement, as illustrated by this exchange with Elizabeth when they encounter the decaying carcass of a horse in an alley: