Review of The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen
by Thomas Mullen
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Time travel is a very broad trope in science fiction. There are so many stories to tell using time travel and so many ways of doing it. I love time travel stories (particularly Doctor Who), the nitty-gritty, wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey type of stories that can leave you utterly confused and gasping for breath by the end. For all their intricate potentialities, however, time travel is really only good for two things: observing history, and fucking with history. Everything else is just variations upon the theme.
Since stories always need conflict, and conflict is hard to do when one is an observer, most time travel stories lean toward the latter. (You can still do clever things with an observer premise, but it’s seldom as fun.) When one travels back in time, it’s to change the past—hopefully with an eye of making the present better. In The Revisionists, our protagonist wants to stop people from changing the past. Zed works for the Government, who have taken Leibniz literally and believe they have found the best of all possible worlds. So Zed stops “historical agitators”, or hags, from screwing up that utopia. Except, as he protects various important Events in contemporary Washington, D.C. that lead up to the catastrophic Great Conflagration, Zed begins to learn things make him question his loyalties.
From here, The Revisionists can go one of two ways. Through Zed’s first person (and therefore unreliable) narration and the limited omniscient narration following Tasha, Leo, and Sari, Thomas Mullen presents two possibilities. First, Zed is a time traveller from an undisclosed time in the future, as he claims. Second, Zed is actually his cover identity—Troy Jones—suffering from paranoid delusions brought on by the trauma of losing his ex-wife and daughter in a traffic collision. The time travel trappings are all part of an elaborate conspiracy fantasy Troy has constructed and is now living. True to postmodern form, Mullen declines to collapse the wavefunction and tell us which interpretation is “true”, leaving us to decide for ourselves. This is supposed to be artsy and clever and make the book that much more appealing. Unfortunately, neither interpretation leads to a satisfying experience.
Let’s assume, then, that Zed is actually from the future. Thomas Mullen tells us exactly nothing about how time travel actually works in this universe. Apparently there is a “ritual” of some kind that allows Zed to be recalled to the future (or a future). But we’re spared any of the technobabble infodumps characteristic of most time-travel stories. Mullen is similarly vague about the technology Zed possesses. He appears to have cybernetic enhancements: he can communicate telepathically and wirelessly infilitrate neary computer systems; he has some kind of internal database that he can access using mental commands or eye gestures; and he can detect non-contemporary individuals by scanning for the DNA. He doesn’t carry a lot of futuristic technology on his person—ostensibly to avoid accidental contamination of the timeline—with the most exotic tool being “flashers”, small grenades that appear to disintegrate everything within a limited radius.
None of this is very impressive or satisfying from a science-fiction standpoint. Furthermore, the monolithic and suspect Government that Zed protects is a very vague sort of dystopia. I’m tired of this trend: it’s lazy worldbuilding. There’s something to be said for not specifying the nature of the cataclysm preceding one’s post-apocalyptic society—perhaps it makes the author’s vision of the future more accessible. However, this does not excuse a failure to explain the post-apocalyptic society itself.
All Mullen tells us is that it’s called “the Government” (almost as original as the Capitol, that) and it does not allow its citizens access to much in the way of history. According to Zed, this is for their own good—ignorance, after all, is bliss. Indeed, after his wife and daughter die in an all-too-convenient accident, minions come around to Zed’s abode and eliminate any traces of their persons, from photographs to toys to clothing and scents. This is all very sinister, but it’s still far too vague. We get no sense of who is in charge of the Government, and we meet fewer than five characters aside from Zed.
So, as a time-time travel story, I have to give The Revisionists a failing mark. It’s just so incredibly vague that it’s more the outline of a story than an actual story. This is not good enough to keep me occupied until Doctor Who comes back in the fall. I’ll go watch some episodes of Stargate SG-1 or something.
Then what if we regard Zed as the somewhat deranged Troy Jones? Does this make the book any better? The problem with normalizing The Revisionists and interpreting its science-fictional elements as hallucinatory is that it forces us to view the book as a conspiracy thriller. And, while I admit that I am somewhat of a snob when it comes to thrillers, I suspect that I would not be alone in concluding that this is a fairly lacklustre thriller. The characters are dull. Removed from its trappings of temporal preservation, the plot becomes one of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage, a commentary on the conflict between capitalism’s commitment to globalization and the patriotism expected of the American intelligence ecosystem. There’s never really a sense of impending danger, though. Neither Leo nor Tasha are very good at what they do, and while I suppose they are likeable enough as far as people go, I never became emotionally invested in their stories. I did like Sari and wished she would come to a good end but wasn’t particularly optimistic.
Then there’s the fulcrum of The Revisionists: the tension between the Great Man theory of history and the theory that people are merely the product of their times. I think this issue would be a lot more interesting when explored through the lens of time travel. Attempting to sort through the machinations of Enhanced Awareness, Ltd., or Leo’s employer, Targeted Executive Solutions, doesn’t really provide the same sort of epic scope that such a discussion deserves. As a straight-up thriller, then, there is very little in the way of purpose to The Revisionists.
I take issue neither with Mullen’s writing nor with his ideas, which are themselves pretty good. Rather, he has managed to construct a plot that can be interpreted in two ways yet fails to work on either level. I guess I’m disappointed because I was looking forward to an intense time-travel-themed thriller. Instead, I got a book that wants to pretend to be an intense time-travel-themed thriller and … isn’t quite convincing at it.