Title: The Revisionists
Author: Thomas Mullen
Published: 28 September 2011 by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre: science fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 7/10
Zed is a government agent from a future he knows as ‘our Perfect Present’, a semi-utopia built out of the ruins of ‘the Great Conflagration’ – a global disaster that occurs in our own time and begins in Washington D.C. It’s Zed’s job to ‘protect the Events’ – key moments in history that eventually lead up to the Great Conflagration and need to occur if the Perfect Present is to be realised.
Leo too is a secret agent doing morally questionable things in the name of national security. He was kicked out of the CIA after daring to actually ask moral questions about his work, and he’s now employed by a company that handles outsourced intelligence operations.
Tasha is a hard-working young lawyer in a corporation with powerful but shady clients. Her brother was recently killed fighting America’s war with Iraq, and she suspects that the military’s story about his death is just a cover-up for something more sinister and most likely profitable. So when she stumbles across confidential information suggesting that one of her firm’s clients may have let soldiers die just to cut costs, she risks her career by leaking the information to the press.
Sari is an Indonesian immigrant who has practically been enslaved by an abusive South Korean diplomat and his wife. Powerless to do anything about it, she agrees to spy on the couple in return for help.
The stories of these four characters intertwine in Washington D.C., in a post 9/11 world characterised by paranoia, innumerable secret agents, anti-war protests and the question of whether the US government is protecting its citizens or its own power. This plot has the potential to be a dense political thriller, but it turned out to be a sophisticated literary novel about how to deal with the past and the individual’s role in an incomprehensibly complex and powerful system.
In the future world that Zed comes from, the past is both sacred and forbidden. All history is highly classified, and only a few people are given limited access to it when necessary. Even your own past is restricted. When someone dies their loved ones are allowed a brief grieving period before state employees confiscate all evidence of the deceased’s existence from their home and workplace, essentially erasing them from the public mind. The theory is that the past is dangerous. Dwelling on it is psychologically and socially destructive, as proved by the countless conflicts spawned by race, religion, ethnicity, land ownership and anything else with historical roots. When one of Zed’s colleagues suggests that their society should be given access to historical information so they can cease to be ignorant, another protests vehemently:
According to the government of the Perfect Present, the historical Protectors are safeguarding their society’s freedom by protecting the past from any significant change. When time travel was invented, a group of people known as ‘historical agitators’ (hags), tried to use it to prevent some of history’s greatest atrocities from happening.
The hags’ argument is that lives would be saved and tragedies averted, and they’re right in their short sighted way. They choose to overlook the fact that such changes would destroy our Perfect Present, meaning that the Great Conflagration, or some similar event, would still be happening, and the suffering would never end. All the problems we’ve solved, all the broken aspects of society we’ve fixed, all the effort we’ve made to eliminate human meanness and frailty – these accomplishments must be protected, no matter the cost. (p.39)
Zed clings to this theory because although the Protectors are told constantly how noble their job is, it’s brutal in practice: “We were sent to ensure that awful events unfolded as originally dictated by history, that the hags did not rewrite the final acts of tragedies to make them comedies. [...] Wherever we went, countless people died in our wake.” (p.37). Zed is referring specifically to the millions who die because the Protectors ensure that things like the Holocaust or the World Wars unfold as they originally did, but the Protectors also act as assassins, killing any of the hags they find.
The Perfect Present, I think, parallels America’s view of itself. Not that its citizens or its government could so easily call it perfect, but there is nevertheless the assumption that it is better than other societies and must therefore be protected against change from outside forces, even at the cost of countless human lives.
But The Revisionists constantly debates these assumptions, in both the future and present societies. Is either society really the ideal? The Perfect Present has certainly made some improvements. There is no race or religion, and therefore no conflict or division based thereon. Agents like Zed are cybernetically enhanced to the extent that their brains function like powerful computers, so clearly technology has taken a huge leap forward. We’re told that people, on the whole, are happy. Washington D.C. is similar in some ways – there are social ills, but it is undoubtedly better developed than many societies and life, on the whole, is good there.
It’s the level of government control and surveillance in the two societies that makes them seem more like dystopias than utopias. Can a government whose activities include invading citizens’ privacy and assassinating revolutionaries be a good government? Are they damaging what they supposedly protect? The parallel therefore extends to Leo and Zed, the kinds of agents who do the spying and the killing. Are they really doing what is best for their societies, given that what they do is so despicable? I’ve already mentioned all the death Zed causes in doing his job. Leo isn’t an assassin himself, but the information he provides to his superiors is used to capture suspects who are then tortured and killed. His current assignment involves the embarrassingly dirty task of spying on anti-war protesters and tracking down the creators of knoweverything.org, a website dedicated to informing the public about some of the US government’s unethical operations. Along the way Leo blackmails Tasha, using her decision to expose corruption against her. He is also the person who meets Sari and convinces her to spy on the diplomatic couple who are abusing her, even though he’s not sure if he can actually help her out as promised.
Both Zed and Leo are forced to question the ethics of their occupations although in doing so they lose the meaning that their work gives their lives. Leo in particular has always rebuked himself as someone who “never did anything” (p.47). He signed up with the CIA in the hope of changing that, but ended up doing things he couldn’t live with. A similar crisis befalls Tasha when she realises that she’s working for the kind of people who may have let her brother and other soldiers die in the pursuit of profit. These dilemmas also bring into sharp relief the characters’ own powerlessness. Actions that they believe might have devastating consequences could actually be almost pointless. At the same time, when they appear to have been influential the consequences are terrible and often reveal them to be pawns of far more powerful forces.
Towards the end, the grand plots are concentrated into more personal concerns. Ideas about society and government give way to thoughts on grief, family, the past and a meaningful existence. Politics are by no means pushed out of the picture, but the story becomes more about the effect that government is having on individual lives and how casually it manipulates and discards them. The characters become increasingly unsure of themselves and although we get a few answers to some of the mysteries in the novel, the whole story seems to fracture into uncertainty, leaving you on shakier ground than when you started. The novel even throws its own genre – science fiction – into question in a single conversation, playing a little mind game that is my favourite thing about The Revisionists.
It doesn’t feel like a world falling apart but rather like one being dismantled so that the characters can escape from the personal dilemmas they’re trapped in and build new lives from whatever’s left. Uncertainty flourish rather than die out, but it’s something they come to accept. It’s not the most exciting of stories, especially if you’re expecting a time-travel thriller, but that should not dissuade you. There’s still a good deal of action and tension, and it’s a well-crafted, pensive novel, something better-appreciated with a little pondering.