Thursday, March 15, 2012

Change the Past and the Future Will Follow

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always tell people I don't really read science fiction anymore, and I mean it. But it's not quite true. I don't devour one space opera after another like I did in high school, but then again I don't read anything the way I did in my teens. Who's got that kind of time or focus with a job, a home, a family? Anyhow, a quick scan of my Good Reads account recently opened my eyes to the fact that I do still read science fiction, just not as much or as exclusively as I used to. The science fiction I read these days looks a lot the rest of the novels I read: ambiguous, high concept, inward, "literary."

The Revisionists is all that and a thriller too. It's the first book I've read from Atlanta resident Thomas Mullen, and it won't be the last. The Revisionists follows a government agent from the future sent back to present day Washington, D.C. on a final mission to protect the integrity of the timeline and prevent rogue time travelers from averting a looming apocalypse just one terrorist incident away. Zed, the protagonist, is a kind of "time cop" whose job it is to ensure that the Holocaust does take place, that JFK, RFK and MLK are assassinated, that the Twin Towers do fall. But then, despite his best efforts, things start going inexplicably not according to plan, and doubt creeps in.

The best science fiction is less about the future than the present, and The Revisionists is that kind of work. The parallels between the reader's present day and Agent Zed's future "Perfect Present" are unmistakable without being painfully obvious. Both Zed and the missing present-day defense contractor whose identity he assumes serve a nervous and increasingly paranoid surveillance state whose official reality may be either benevolent and prophetic or simply a self-serving delusion. To his credit, Mullen never spoonfeeds the reader any easy answers and even at the end we, like his characters, are left in an uncertain world where black and white are lost among infinite grays.

So many gigantic novels are being published these days, and most of them are less "epic" than lazy and poorly edited. At 435 pages, The Revisionists is long but not overlong, stylish but not overwrought, complex but not nonsensically convoluted. The only time I was tempted to wield my imaginary editor's pencil came as Zed's crisis of conscience moved him to begin subjecting his targets to high-stakes philosophical debates while staring down the barrel of a gun. That cliche only works in the movies and only one time. But the rest of the book kept me firmly in its grip as I struggled to figure out what would become of Zed, his future—and us.

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