Today we have a recent release by Robert Charles Wilson. It is Last Year. Is it worth your time? Let's find out.
The story begins in 1876 Illinois. But this isn't the 19th-century we know from history books. Something seems off. Could it be all the modern technology floating around? You see, at some point in the future, mankind discovers time travel, and billionaire Richard Branson-esque August Kemp decides to monetize the past by turning it into a tourist destination. So he builds the City, a sort of reverse museum; instead of showcasing the past, it gives natives a glimpse of the future. He sets up shop and hires locals (19th-century people) to work for him while he shows off amazing marvels such as a helicopter for paying customers.
One such local is Jesse Cullum. As the book opens, he has the honor of saving a visiting Ulysses S. Grant from an assassination attempt. This makes him a hero, so Kemp pairs him up with future agent Elizabeth to track down the source of high-tech contraband that's been flooding the area. They work well together and even (predictably) develop feelings for one another.
Time passes and Kemp eventually sends the dynamic duo to San Francisco to track down an activist from the future who's handing out advanced pistols to oppressed people such as Native Americans and warning them about the monumental screw jobs America is about to send their way. But their real mission is to track down a member of Kemp's family who's run away. This won't be easy; Jesse has a powerful enemy in San Francisco named Roscoe Candy who will stop at nothing to get his revenge. And with all hell breaking loose across the country, every second counts.
I enjoyed Last Year. While it starts off slow, it provides a refreshing take on time travel stories and makes us question our values at the same time. Morally speaking, were we better off in the 19th-century, or is our modern era the way to go? Are increased civil rights worth global warming? The narrative doesn't give any easy answers, and I respect it for that. We must decide these things for ourselves.
I also appreciated getting the outsiders perspective on our futuristic technology. We see, through Jesse's eyes, how post-Civil War people might react to things like iPhones, and it feels authentic to me. They don't treat it as magic, but simply things they haven't seen yet.
Bottom line: Last Year is a must-read.