Thomas Mullen's "The Revisionists" is a thought-provoking, morally ambiguous thriller, involving shadowy government agencies, Orwellian police, skeletons in closets, time travel and schizophrenia. It's a story that raises more questions than it answers and forces the reader to confront several difficult philosophical questions.
The fulcrum of the moral ambiguity is an agent named Zed, who claims to have been sent back from the future to ensure that certain world-changing events occur to protect the fate of a future utopia, the Perfect Present. Zed's job is to locate fellow time-travelers that are looking to prevent these world events (such as the terrorist attacks of 9/1 1 and a series of events that lead to an apocalyptic "Great Conflagration" in the very near future).
Part cyborg, part existential journeyman, Zed guards over his assignment in modern-day Washington, D.C., killing off rebels and ensuring that each event leading to the end of days -- and then on to the Perfect Present -- takes place.
Self-doubt eventually creeps into Zed's mind, and he begins to wonder if he's fighting on the side of the good guys or the bad guys.
A chance meeting between Zed and a young woman searching for answers following the mysterious death of her brother in Iraq inadvertently makes Zed a participant in the events he is supposed to oversee and pulls a government whistle-blower and a desperate Indonesian house servant into a cloak-and-dagger world of surveillance, cover-ups and double-agents.
"The Revisionists" is quickly and evenly paced, with the narrative point of view shifting between four principal characters whose lives are brought together through the quirkiness of fate.
Though time travel is a major component of the story, Mullen keeps the details under wraps. He never explains exactly how time travel comes to be, and he never addresses a fundamental issue with time travel -- if it's possible to travel back in time, can a person ever "protect" the course of history? Or wouldn't the time-traveling rebels have infinite opportunities to come back and effect change, creating countless parallel future scenarios? No wonder Zed starts feeling ennui.
Despite the time travel, "The Revisionists" is less of a sci-fi story and more of a political thriller, about people searching for meaning in a digital age and about the rapidly disintegrating boundary lines between the government and corporations. It has become harder than ever to differentiate good from evil and truth from propaganda.
"The Revisionists" doesn't offer any easy answers. It does, however, provide a glimpse at a future where memories are forcibly erased, history books are banned and it is illegal to disagree with the government. It may be a cautionary tale set in the future, but the world Mullen describes doesn't seem too far removed from the present.
"The Revisionists" is Mullen's third novel. His debut novel, "The Last Town on Earth," won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 2007. He published "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers" in 2010.
Dan Murphy is a local freelance writer.
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