Mullen, Thomas. The Revisionists.

NY: Little, Brown, 2011.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction and I have a particular thing for time travel stories, perhaps because all my academic background is in history. There are certain themes and tropes you’re almost certain to come across in those books, one of which is the “time patrol” — a body of travelers whose job it is to make sure visitors to the past don’t screw up their own future. That’s sort of the conceit here, but Mullen takes it much farther than I have ever encountered before.

Zed (who masquerades in Washington, DC, in our own time as a “contemp” named Troy Jones) is a Protector, an agent of a future government trying to guarantee its own continued existence (the “Perfect Society”) against the underground “hags,” who want to change things in the past. Because a very short time from now we are doomed to experience the “Great Conflagration,” a global political disaster which will cause the deaths of hundreds of millions. And the hags want to prevent that, even though the future world will supposedly be an improvement. Zed has to Protect those upcoming Events.

It’s a very strange world for Zed — all those meat-eaters, all those very white and very black people on their cell phones — but this isn’t his first assignment and he can deal with it. But it’s becoming harder each time. Still, he enjoys what he does, including killing hags. “I love these moments, these tiny fulcrums of history, the gears turning before my eyes.”

But Zed/Troy isn’t the story’s only POV. There’s also Leo Hastings, an ex-academic and ex-CIA operative who left the Company under a cloud, now working for a private intelligence contractor and tailing anti-government protesters. (Corporate contractors — “green tags” — taking over more and more of the functions of government is a major theme.) Then he meets Sari, a young Indonesian woman (and another narrator), at a grocery and becomes drawn into her life and troubles. She’s the abused housemaid/cook/nanny for a South Korean diplomat and his ex-North Korean wife, she speaks no English (but Leo speaks Indonesian), and her papers have been taken from her by her employers. Leo wants to help her but he also wants to use her to leverage the Koreans, purely on spec. It’s just the way his mind works this post-9/11 world.

Finally, there’s Tasha Wilson, a young black attorney, serving her indenture in a big Washington firm to pay her law school loans, who is also a conflicted whistleblower because of the confused circumstances of her brother’s death in combat in the Middle East. Tasha becomes involved with both Leo and Troy, who are also both involved with Tasha’s old friend, T.J., a full-time thorn in the federal government’s side. And Leo and Troy thereby become caught up in each other’s problems as well. Meanwhile, the Great Conflagration looms.

Mullen is very good at the details of the plot and the players, with Zed’s/Troy’s brain being filled with advanced electronics (including email, a router, and GPS) and Leo’s experiences in his previous life as a government spook. He paces the story very adroitly, allowing the reader to gradually learn just what the protected future is really like at the same time Zed comes to his own epiphany. The same is true of Leo, as he slowly draws new conclusions about the ends to which he has unknowingly been working. Sari’s desperate isolation in America with only the ghostly voice of her late mother for company is nicely handled, too. And especially, I like the fact that while all the other narrators tell their stories in the usual past tense, Zed, the time traveler, speaks only in present tense — because he can only relate to the present. Yes, the plot develops rather slowly, but be patient. It’s worth the wait. It’s a complex story, beautifully told, and I recommend it very highly, even if you aren’t ordinarily a science fiction reader.

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