Last Year (Robert Charles Wilson)

I’ve been a fan of Robert Charles Wilson’s work for almost twelve years.  He’s an author who lives in Toronto and writes fantasy and science fiction that almost uniformly makes me think (which is my favorite kind of book).  Spin has been my favorite of his for a long time (check it out here if you’re interested), but then that changed.  Three days ago, I read the first few pages of Last Year.  I now have a new favorite Robert Charles Wilson novel!

Before I get started (since it’s my prerogative), let me tell you my favorite RCW story from my own life.  Many years ago, I was shopping in my favorite bookstore, Bakka Phoenix Books in Toronto.  I saw a book of RCW short stories I hadn’t picked up yet, and of course had to buy it.  It turned out that it had been signed by the author, which made it even cooler for me.  Later that day, my wife and I were spending many hours in a local IKEA.  Since I was bored, I was reading my brand-new book.  A man approached me to say that he really enjoyed the collection as well, and to let me know that he’s a close friend of the author.  It turned out that RCW is also a huge fan of Bakka Phoenix, which was why he’d been there to sign some books, one of which I’d gotten.  So that’s my brush with greatness for you today.

Last Year has an interesting premise right from the start.  In our time, a machine has been discovered that can create a gate back to the past.  Not our past, but A past.  In interviews, Mr. Wilson has said that he wanted to write a time travel novel that got to ignore the problem of paradox, which is what he’s done.  Since it’s a past that’s strongly related to ours, but not our past, things we do there won’t impact our future, only their future.  A very wealthy man from the future wheels and deals to buy a large chunk of land near Chicago and build a resort community.  Once it’s done, he announces himself as being from the future.  He brings tourists from the future through to visit the world of the 1870s, and brings tourists from the 1870s to visit carefully-selected information on the world of the 21st century (in exchange for gold, which is valid currency anywhere).  The owner’s plan is to run this resort for five years and then close up shop, heading back to the future (and opening another such resort in another past timeline).  The reason for this choice is that too much interaction between future concepts, technology, and people will, in theory, lead to the 1870s world being too culturally polluted to be a real draw for his future customers to want to visit.  Oh, and the title alludes to his further plan to disseminate information on engineering, medicine, and other technology to the people from the past over the course of the last year of the resort, so they can shape their own future after he and his people are gone.

The worldbuilding Wilson has done in this book happens along the way, primarily.  It isn’t told in huge expository chunks, but is rather organically drawn out in a way I vastly preferred to some authors’ styles.

Our story is seen through two characters, Jesse (a “local” from the past) and Elizabeth, who is an employee from the future.

The most interesting elements of this novel are the sociocultural interactions between past and future.  One of my college majors was Sociology, and ethnocentrism is a concept that I spend a great deal of time considering.  That’s what we’re doing when we judge another society or culture simply through the lens of our own, rather than bothering to consider context or the idea that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t better than they are.  When we think about how other cultures live, and want to judge them, that’s ethnocentrism.

It’s easy for us to whitewash the past, romanticize the past, and think that the way they lived was perfect.  No TV screens!  A simpler way of life!  No antibiotics in cows!  What this book does a good job of (in particular) is showing how difficult life was in the 1870s.  It also demonstrates the many ways in which our current world isn’t a utopia.  There are negative things about the 21st century, and negative things about the 19th century.  You don’t get to choose which century you inhabit (unless you’re living in this book).

Last Year also shows what sometimes happens when two cultures collide–technological advances that weren’t come by through discovery, that a society is not yet prepared for, can cause ripples throughout that world.  When a would-be assassin attempts to kill President Ulysses S. Grant with a Glock pistol, Elizabeth and Jesse are sent to discover who has been smuggling automatic weapons from the future into the world of the 1970s.  They discover a whole lot more than a few guns, however, and that discovery (and what it means) are the central feature of this excellent novel.

The book explores themes such as cultural mores (remember, the Civil War had just ended in the 1870s, and African-Americans were starting to have it pretty rough).  At the same time, think how people from that time period would conceptualize things such as marriage equality (or just an iPhone).  There are a vast many differences between our world and the world of the distant past that create a very fascinating stew when combined within these pages.

That juxtaposition between future (well, present) and past is at the center of this book, and I loved it.  I think that anyone who enjoys thinking about cultural difference probably would as well.  My conclusion?  You should read this book.  Buy it here!

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