Books: 'The Revisionists' searches for a perfect future

Author Thomas Mullen's new novel, "The Revisionists," is considered to be a time travel thriller.

Story highlights

  • "The Revisionists" is a new time-travel thriller from author Thomas Mullen
  • The main character, Zed, has been sent back in time to protect the the future
  • Mullen says his focus is on the nature of history and how it's shaped than the science of time travel
What if you could change history? Would you go back and kill Hitler before the Holocaust? Arrest Oswald before JFK was assassinated? Stop Bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks?
Of course you would.
But what if you had to stand by and let those events unfold in order to achieve a more perfect future? That's the premise posed in "The Revisionists," a new time-travel thriller from award-winning author, Thomas Mullen.
In the future, there's no hunger, no war, no crime. At least, that's what we're led to believe. It's Zed's job to keep it that way.
He's been sent back in time, to something similar to our present, to protect the integrity of the future timeline. To do that, Zed has to make sure that an imminent disaster of epic proportions, called "The Great Conflagration" happens just as history says it will, or does, or did. In his mission, Zed faces off with other time travelers, enemy agents called Hags, short for historical agitators, who want to prevent this apocalypse.
Along the way, Zed crosses paths with an eclectic cast of characters, including a young Washington lawyer seeking answers about her brother, a soldier killed in Iraq; a disgraced former CIA agent; and a young Indonesian woman trapped as an indentured servant to a North Korean diplomat. Soon cracks start to appear in the timeline and Zed starts to doubt his mission.
Don't let the description of the plot mislead you, this is not your typical sci-fi novel.
Mullen is less concerned with the intricacies of time travel, focusing more on the nature of history and how it's shaped. As the saying goes, "History is written by the victors" -- but what if there were no winners in this scenario?
In "The Revisionists," Mullen presents a compelling and complex page-turner, a paranoid thriller for the post-9/11 age. CNN recently sat down with Mullen to talk about his new book; the following is an edited transcript:
CNN: What was the spark that led to this book?
Mullen: There were a lot of sparks. It's a book that involves different narratives. I'd had the idea of this guy who comes back from the future and has to prevent bad things from happening. He's justifying his bad means because there's going to be a perfect end. I just thought that was an intriguing moral angle. I thought it was fun and I thought it had interesting interplay with the idea of intelligence agencies occasionally doing bad things but saying, oh it's for a good cause.
I'd heard a story about this issue of domestic servants basically being kept as slaves in these really nice houses in D.C. because their bosses are diplomats who can hide behind diplomatic immunity, and I thought that was a really interesting idea but I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it.
I was also interested in the idea of intelligence agents, either governmental or private, following peace activists, because that was happening. It's not legal, it's not supposed to happen, but you hear stories about police officers, mysterious agents, agent provocateurs with a group of peace activists, trying to get them all amped up so they would do something wrong so they could get arrested. You'd like to think these things don't happen, but you keep hearing about things like that happening. I thought that would be an intriguing story.
So, I was kind of juggling these different ideas, then I put it aside, but I still, every now and then, would work on it. There were a lot of false starts with this. It took me a while to get some of these threads together in a way that I liked them.
There were these different stories that I liked that I wanted to figure out and I asked myself, is this one book? Do these things go together; do I need to cut some of them out? I did end up cutting out some of the activist stuff, but I wanted to find a way to thread these different narratives together and see if it could all come together. It may have been a little messy but I hope in the end it worked.
CNN: You really play with the idea of "history" in your book.
Mullen: As somebody who has previously written two historical novels, in a lot of ways this book is a departure for me. At the same time this book is sort of about history, how it's formed and how we are products of our own history.
The question comes up in the book; do we control our own fate? Can we make our own history or are we just pawns?
That taps into this conspiracist view of the world that created a lot of great fiction and film in the 1970 like "All the President's Men" and "The Conversation." There's this sense that there's this vast conspiracy of forces controlling us, that the government is listening to everything we do and there's nothing we can do about it.
It's easy to think that way, especially now, but at the same time we also believe we're a country where a skinny interracial kid ... can become president. You never really know what's going to happen; you never know what's going to be historically important. There's the butterfly effect where one little thing here could change the world for someone else.
So I was thinking about that a lot and the struggle that we all feel; how much control do I have over my fate, the country, my community? Do I really believe in a perfect future? Some of us would like to think we're creating a better future, especially if we're in politics or public service. We're trying to take a bad situation and make it better. But how much better can we make it? Are we just pushing a rock up a hill and it's going to come down and crush us again? Do we really believe in a perfect society and the idea that America is a noble experiment and we're still working on it to try and get it right? Can anything really be perfect and does that road lead to these totalitarian regimes?
The desire to create a better world is a noble goal and we all have it but it can be taken in scary directions. When you have these totalitarian nations, these communist nations that say they're creating a perfect society when really most of us would say they've done the opposite.
Trying to control history, or the lack of control, that's something the book deals with.
CNN: How did you handle the idea of time travel in your novel?
Mullen: I didn't want to write a book with some guy zipping in and out of various situations; I wanted it to be set in the here and now. I liked the idea of a time traveler not just for the moral dilemma but I think he has a great perspective on how he sees our world now, all the tensions in our society, the issues of race and ethnicity. To him he's coming from many, many generations later. I was influenced by this Time magazine cover story, the face of the future and there was this computer program that melded thousands of faces, many generations later after all the races have mixed, this is what people will look like.
If I want to be realistic about the idea of a time traveler coming from the future, he's not going to look like us, he's not going to be a white guy, he's not going to be a black guy, he's going to be kind of this amalgam. In any book, it's not a new idea in a time travel story to have everybody say, wait a minute are you just pulling one over on us, are you crazy, are you a reliable narrator? That was fun to work in.
CNN: "The Revisionists" includes a lot of great detail about U.S. intelligence agencies. Tell me how you researched all of this?
Mullen: As with a lot of fiction, some of it was smoke and mirrors and the rest of it was basically just doing a lot of reading. I wasn't a spy and I don't have any friends who were spies, as far as I know. The book changed a lot; I went in different directions because the more I learned I would find a more believable way to advance the story. I think the initial idea I had wouldn't have worked as well and I don't think it would have made you think, "Wow, this guy knows what he's talking about."
I learned as I went and I was able to tell a more realistic story as a result. But I didn't go on any drive-bys with any spies, although that would have been cool.
CNN: What's next for you?
Mullen: I've actually written a lot of my next book already, it's historical again. I'm from Boston, Rhode Island actually, but I'm a Red Sox fan. It's loosely based on a real story, that I found out about in an offhand mention, about FBI involvement in Boston sports, it's a legacy that dates back to 1945 when the FBI was following a group of communists who wanted to racially integrate baseball. I thought, Wow! What's that story?
So it's sort of a spy novel, it's also got a bit of romance, and even comedy. I've got an FBI agent, I've also got a female communist sports writer and I've got a baseball star of the Negro League back from World War II. I said I wasn't going to keep writing in a historical vein but sometimes I see an idea and I think that's just too cool. It's been fun to write.