Mulholland Books, 2011, 400 pages
A fast-paced literary thriller that recalls dystopian classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, from the award-winning author of The Last Town on Earth.
Zed is an agent from the future. A time when the world's problems have been solved. No hunger. No war. No despair.
His mission is to keep it that way. Even if it means ensuring every cataclysm throughout history runs its course-especially The Great Conflagration, an imminent disaster in our own time that Zed has been ordered to protect at all costs.
Zed's mission will disrupt the lives of a disgraced former CIA agent; a young Washington lawyer grieving over the loss of her brother, a soldier in Iraq; the oppressed employee of a foreign diplomat; and countless others. But will he finish his final mission before the present takes precedence over a perfect future? One that may have more cracks than he realizes?
The Revisionists puts a fresh spin on today's global crises, playing with the nature of history and our own role in shaping it. It firmly establishes Mullen as one of the most exciting and imaginative writers of his generation.
The Revisionists is being marketed as a "literary thriller," but Thomas Mullen isn't afraid to go slumming with the sci-fi nerds, and his pimping of his new book at John Scalzi's place is what tempted me to give it a shot. It looked like it might not be your typical time travel story, and I was right. It's smart, complex, philosophical, and written with style, but it's also a real thriller that keeps several balls in the air throughout the book and never drops them. Technically, it's science fiction, because of the time travel element, but it really doesn't read like a sci-fi novel and in fact, Mullen found a clever way to make time travel both an essential plot device and a MacGuffin that doesn't really affect the story at all.
"Z" is a time traveler from the Perfect Society, as it calls itself, occupying the Perfect Present, where wars and racial disharmony and inequality and starvation and a multitude of other ills are no more. This Perfect Present is (supposedly) in our future, after a time known as the Great Conflagration, which apparently began with one incident in Washington, D.C. The year is not specified and Mullen is just vague enough about the details to keep the date of the book from being absolutely fixed, but he makes very real references to modern politics and modern Washington (without actually naming Presidents or other individuals), and especially to 9/11 and the war on terror -- so for the person reading it in 2011, it very much reads like today.
Z's mission introduces our first philosophical dilemma. He hunts renegade time travelers who he and his fellow agents call "hags." The hags want to prevent some of history's great tragedies. Wars and assassinations. 9/11. The Holocaust. Z's job is to prevent them from changing history, because by changing history, they will prevent the Perfect Society and possibly make the future far worse than the past they are trying to improve. The hags believe they are doing good; Z's Department of Historical Integrity considers them terrorists. Z's current mission is to make sure that the Great Conflagration happens as it's supposed to, which means he's going to kill the hags who would prevent certain people from being killed as future history says they will be.
Z is certainly an interesting character, and through him we learn increasingly more about his "Perfect Society." Unsurprisingly, it is not so perfect. But Z's story goes even deeper, and while I can't say more without risking spoilers, let's just say that by the end, there are several ways to read the events that transpire.
There are three other POV characters besides Z, all of them "contemps" (as Z calls them): people from our own time.
Leo is a former CIA agent who was tracking terrorists in Indonesia when things went very wrong. He was fired for allegedly being a whistle-blower, though it couldn't be proven, and thanks to his connections he kept his security clearance if not his job. He now works as a private contractor in Washington, D.C. for one of the many companies that do outsourced intelligence work for the federal government as part of the Military-Intelligence complex. He hates his new job: he's a lowly "green badger" following activists around, little more than a glorified private investigator and errand-boy for BigGov/BigCorp.
Tasha is an African-American yuppie lawyer with a nice townhouse in Washington, D.C., massive law school debt, and a radical leftist ex-boyfriend who's one of those peace activists Leo is following around. Tasha also had a younger brother who joined the Army and died in Iraq. She believes the Army isn't telling her family the truth about how he died. She watches (and participates in) the gentrification of D.C. with mixed feelings. She makes big bucks working for a law firm that represents defense contractors who cut corners to save money at the cost of lives. In other words, like Z and Leo, she's compromised as hell, a person who has found that it's much easier to have principles than to act on them.
Sari is an Indonesian nanny brought to the U.S. by her employer, a South Korean diplomat. Her employer and his wife are a loveless, dysfunctional couple who took away Sari's passport, don't pay her, and keep her a virtual prisoner in their Washington home. Sari speaks no English, but one evening she is ordered to shop for food at a local grocery story, where she meets Leo.
The plotting of this novel was impressive; even those few places where the author relied on coincidence did not seem contrived. But the characters were equally well done. They were all real people with individual problems, and each of their paths intersect in ways that are both coincidental and inevitable. You might expect that Leo decides to play white knight, rescue Sari from an abusive situation, and become her dashing American Prince Charming. Yes and no, but mostly no. Both of them are too self-aware to play out that story and expect a happy ending. Sari, for all her vulnerability, is no fool and displays as much agency as someone in her situation can. Leo is neither stupid nor delusional, and he's neither a devil nor a saint.
Even the secondary characters are compelling. Tasha's brother, Z's family, the wife of Sari's employer, they each have interesting stories.
This isn't really a time travel story. Z comes from the future and we see glimpses of it, but it's a future grimly like our own world in many ways, and all the real action takes place in the present day. There's no time-hopping willy-nilly, and no grand shifting of timelines and creating of alternate histories. Everything plays out just as if all the actors were regular people... people working for a variety of covert organizations and inscrutable causes, but still perfectly believable.
Note to those familiar with Washington, D.C. and the world of organizational alphabet soup: you will appreciate the verisimilitude of this book. Mullen nails it, especially the privatization of defense and intelligence work, the inter-agency pissing contests, and the atmosphere of D.C. As opposed to say, Dan Brown, who is an incompetent hack who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. (But who will never care if people call him an incompetent hack because he sneezes money.)
And hey, The Revisonists is well written, with pleasing prose and appropriate use of metaphors, a variety of perspectives, a narrative that doesn't spell itself out for you, and some moments that are genuinely poignant. And yes, it requires some intellectual engagement. I practically despair at some of the reviews I've seen by the YA-lit crowd complaining that it was too "wordy," too "complicated," or had too many details about dumb stupid things like federal agencies. What were you expecting, Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Verdict: Time travel is the hook, not the plot. This is some good literary SF for your non-SF-loving friends, with shades of dystopian fiction but no shades of YA. Very contemporary, and fast-paced despite the multitude of issues it raises, The Revisionists is an excellent stand-alone novel with a bittersweet ending that will leave you thinking. This one has made me interested in checking out what else Mullen has written.