Two events made the first of September a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant.
The part about saving Grant's life was speculative. Even without Jesse's intervention, the pistol might have misfired or the bullet missed its mark. Jesse felt uneasy about taking credit for an act of purely theoretical heroism. But the loss of the Oakleys, that was a real tragedy. He had loved those Oakleys. The way they improved his vision on sunny days. The way they made him look (9).
The final great SF novel of 2016, Robert Charles Wilson's Last Year, gives us time travel, the Gilded Age, old-west San Francisco, and timely reflections on politics, social change, America, and the fact that technological progress has "not abolished vindictiveness or petty jealousy"(323).
In the near future, we acquire the ability to travel through time or, rather, to alternate pasts, though within a restricted range and for a limited time. An American billionaire with a trumped-up sense of his own importance exploits that technology, with unexpected consequences. We experience these through the lives of two of his employees: a former soldier and single mother from the twenty-first century, and a one-time whorehouse bouncer and drifter from the nineteenth. She must come to terms with a much-nostalgized past where children are exploited and people die from superficial wounds. He must grapple with a technologically awe-inspiring future where an African-American man has served two terms as president and same-sex couples marry.
When the pair are sent to track down their employer's daughter and the person responsible for putting twenty-first century weapons and forbidden information in the hands and minds of nineteenth century America's downtrodden peoples, they must confront the uncomfortable answer to several questions. Among these: who invented time travel?
L.P. Hartley famously said that the past is a foreign country; so are many aspects of the present. Wilson understands these things better than most, and the adventures reflect on past and present and the complexity of their places and people. Down the street can be a different country, as can the voting district next to you, and their interaction with us, no matter how much we try to smooth things over, can be rough and difficult and dangerous.
Along with the novel's weightier elements, its central characters must deal with love and tourists. We even get an old-west killer with a grudge, just for dark fun. Wilson introduces a number of plot elements and holds them all together. He knows how to tell a story, and he remains one of the best prose stylists in contemporary SF, literary yet uncluttered, and highly readable. His descriptions of the past are well-researched and credibly presented. We also get an incredible description of a pair of towers that become "magnificent ruins."
The central characters have real depth and credibility. Secondary characters can, at times, verge on caricature, though that may not be, strictly speaking, unrealistic.
Time travel is old news, and the late nineteenth century holds a strange fascination for SF fans. Certain aspects of this novel's backstory recall, just a little, Michael Swanwick's Bones of the Earth. Nevertheless, Wilson, as he always does, takes SF tropes in unexpected directions, and this novel may be the most fun he's had on page since his post-apocalyptic western Julian Comstock. I heartily recommend this book, even to readers not particularly taken by science-fiction.