Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson
It’s ironic that what is probably the least likely of science fiction tropes, time travel, also offers some of the richest possibilities in the genre, with the possible exception of alternate history, which runs along the same lines but can only go one direction.
Robert Charles Wilson has created in this latest book a future universe in which time travel to the past has become possible, though the source of this boon is mysterious and debated. Some believe the mirror-like path to the past was created by a combination of academic and industrial knowhow. Others suspect that humans from the far future brought the technology with them and those future humans are now captives in Area 51.
In any case, the window is now in the hands of a corporation which runs Futurity City. The corporation profits in multiple ways. People from the current timeline can pay a hefty fee to travel back to the past to spend time there. The man who runs the city also works with the “locals” in the past, promising them modern technology such as medical cures for five years of access to that timeline. Although it’s thought that the timelines being visited are alternate realities, so that changes can’t affect the future, it’s been decided that five years is the maximum allowable time to avoid creating distortions in history. Through these contacts a great deal of gold from the past also manages to make its way into the corporation’s coffers.
Jesse Collum is a security guard, a local working in Futurity City, who has been assigned guard duty for a visit from President U. S. Grant. He manages to stop a gunman who has brought a weapon from the future, something forbidden, to attempt to assassinate Grant. An investigation into the origins of that gun takes Jesse into his own past in San Francisco where he learns some ugly secrets about Futurity City as it begins to crumble.
Wilson has written some amazing action scenes into this book with a broad variety of heroes and villains, some from the future but many from his own time period.
The setting allows Wilson to explore social differences between the 1870s and the future. To Jesse’s eyes the future does not seem much better with the exception of medical advances, and to many other locals the future, with it’s mingling of races, feminism, and gay marriages sounds like a horror. So the reader is also challenged to face and assess modern progress with a “ripping read” as they say for a reward.