Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson
Wilson’s latest novel is titled “Last Year:, which is a happy coincidence for a New Year’s post.
Wilson’s novels often center on ideas cosmology or astrophysics, and this one is no exception. The plot centers on a twenty first century that has developed (or received?) an ability to travel across the “sheaf” of multiple timelines. These timelines are alternate histories separated by quantum events, i.e., the many universes interpretation.
In this story, travel between lines is imprecise, and impractical outside a range of “space” that is approximately 100-200 years “earlier” than the starting point. It is possible to visit an alternative time line, but only to visit a past like your own. Of course, on the receiving end, it is visitors from a future “like your own”.
The story is set in an “1876” where a twenty first century real estate magnate has set up a resort and tours for well healed visitors to visit this Disney-like attraction. It isn’t clear exactly how the technology got into his hands, and it is also unclear what the real business might be.
If dropping a bunch of twenty firsters and their technology in the middle of the Illinois prairie sounds kind of culturally disruptive, it sure is. That’s part of the reason the “resort” is designed to be open only a few years, and is now entering its Last Year. Hence the title. When the gate closes, the timelines will never communicate again.
The story unfolds as things fall apart. The nineteenth century comes aboil with long standing troubles (market panics, labor unrest, the violent suppression of reed slaves, Indian wars, and so on), as well as clashes with the people from the future, as well as culture “leaks” of technology and frightening ideas (a black President of the United States?)
Setting aside the improbability of the technology and it’s use, Wilson does a great job of portraying this peculiar cultural conflict. He also gives us sympathetic characters from both time lines, and quite a bit of tense action as these little people try to survive when the Hilbert-space hits the fan. Regardless of wondrous technology and ahole billionaires, ordinary men and women from any time line love and care for each other, fight to protect their families, and hope for a better tomorrow (whatever that means in this weird case).
This is the kind of story we expect from RCW, and he delivers.
- Robert Charles Wilson, Last Year, New York, Tor, 2016.
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