Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review: Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Pros: great characters, interesting premise, thought provoking 


It’s 1876 and the City of Futurity is close to its fifth and final year of existence, when the mirror, the portal that connects it to an alternate world’s future, will close. The city is a tourist attraction for people on both sides of the portal, though information and technology is carefully controlled on the past side. Jesse Cullum is a local man, hired on as security. When he prevents an assassination, he’s promoted to help with an investigation with a 21st Century woman.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this. The book takes place entirely in the past, though there are a few conversations that mention the future. The interesting thing for me were the moments when the past and present collided in terms of societal and cultural norms. There is ‘historical’ language, that is to say, some offensive terms are used, in context, and often called out by the future characters. I loved that the author kept Jesse mentally commenting that he didn’t understand what his partner, Elizabeth, is talking about. In the same vein, I also appreciated the occasional reminders of some fundamental differences between the future and the past, the dangers of childbirth being one, and how Elizabeth often forgot about or overlooked these differences.

A few scenes are from alternate points of view, but the majority of the book follows Jesse, who’s had quite an interesting life. His amiable personality and quiet confidence makes him a fun character to follow, even as the story goes through two transitions. Each part gives a more comprehensive look at how the future and past have affected each other, while the third has quite a bit of action compared to the other two parts, as you finally learn more about Jesse’s past in San Francisco.

Elizabeth was a former soldier and Jesse’s observations about how she differs from the women of his time are great. 

Several scenes make you think - some about how things used to be and others about how things are now. The ending especially asks some hard questions about the decisions people make and the consequences others face because of them. The book doesn’t answer any of the ethical questions that come up, but they’d be interesting to discuss.

I really enjoyed this. I suspect a deeper knowledge of the period might have increased my enjoyment, knowing some of the events being discussed and how the presence of the futurists changed things, but as someone who knows very little about the USA during the late 1800s, I found the depiction of life fascinating.

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