Friday, July 29, 2011

"The Revisionists" by Thomas Mullen

What would you do if you had the power to travel back in time?  Would you prevent the atrocities that have plagued our world?  Or would you ensure that those atrocities occur in order to protect the current world you live in? These questions begin The Revisionists, by Thomas Mullen, but they're ultimately not the questions Mullen is most interested in. 

When the book opens, we meet Zed, an agent who has been sent to (our) modern day.  "Hags" have been traveling back in time to try to prevent atrocities (e.g., 9/11), and it's the job of agents like Zed to prevent the hags from succeeding and thus disrupting the future Perfect Society in which Zed lives.  Specifically, Zed must ensure that an event called the Great Conflagration occurs.

There are some interesting philosophical questions around Zed's actions.  Is he doing anything wrong by letting people die? (after all, they're already dead in his time)  What are his responsibilities to the past or to the future?  Unfortunately, these questions don't last long because it quickly becomes clear that Zed's "Perfect Society" is simply a revamped version of Big Brother, bent on controlling individuals' access to knowledge and squelching dissent.  In fact, given Zed's ambivalence about his job, it's surprising that it takes him so long to realize the truth.  When it's obvious that Zed's agency is evil, the ethical dilemmas become much more black and white.

The lives of three other people are also interwoven in the story.  Tasha is a lawyer whose brother recently died in Iraq; when she discovers that one of her firm's clients has been behaving unethically, she decides to go public with her knowledge.  Leo works for a security firm, tracking radical leftist activists.  Sari is an Indonesian woman in the U.S. as a maid to the South Korean ambassador.

Leo and Sari's relationship is another area of the novel that starts more morally interesting than it turns out. When they meet, both are surprised at encountering another who speaks a common language (Leo had worked many years in Indonesia).  Knowing her tenuous relationship as a maid in a foreign country, Leo's instincts to help her kick in at first, but instead he immediately goes to his boss and decides to use her as a way to spy on the diplomat she works for.  Because of this, I never saw Leo sympathetically, despite his repeated insistence that he was trying to do the "right thing."

The two women in the novel, Tasha and Sari, are stronger morally than the male characters, but they also don't get to do all the crazy spy work.

Mullen's message seems to be that each individual can control his or her life.  He also suggests that there are no absolutes when it comes to morality, and trying to live life otherwise will ultimately be unsuccessful.  I like the rejection of a deterministic universe, and the issues of morality certainly come through, even if they didn't always dig as deep as I'd like.

I've also read Mullen's The Last Town on Earth and was turned off by some of its hyper-violent scenes, which were fortunately absent here.  The Revisionists frequently switches narration, and I sometimes found myself confused or forgetting where a character was in the story.  This may be more a result of the short bursts I tended to read the book in rather than a criticism as a whole.

The Revisionists isn't a favorite, but it raises some interesting questions about the way we understand the world.

The Revisionists will be published in September 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

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